May 16, 2014

My Take on "Living to Age 90 and Beyond"

On May 4, 60 Minutes began a two-part report, "Living to 90 and Beyond." I'll hit a personal milestone -- my 85th birthday -- later this month, and have a few thoughts about Part 1 of that report. You can watch it by clicking the video link below, or you can skip it for now and just read my comments. :-)


I love that this piece opens with an ad for Viagra! This report follows the pattern we typically see for media coverage of the elderly: They're climbing Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel -- by any standard a distorted view of most seniors' lives. More about that later.

The 60 Minutes show is based on a UC-Irvine study examining lifestyle factors that contribute to longevity. The researchers reviewed medical records of people -- now in their 90s-- at a Los Angeles Leisure World "active" retirement community. Remember them?

The show came to my attention when I saw a piece on the NextAvenue website that listed two things the CBS show got right, and the two things it got wrong.

What the Show Got Right:
  1. Lifestyle factors are critical. These factors will not surprise readers of this blog -- don't smoke, do exercise (45 minutes a day is best), stay active, enjoy two or three cups of coffee and one or two drinks a day, maintain normal weight... or be a bit overweight. Taking vitamins doesn't seem to matter.
  2. Alzheimer's is exploding. Actually, the percentage of the elderly who get Alzheimer's is slowing down. But the total numbers are rising as baby boomers age.
What the Show Got Wrong by Not Mentioning:
  1. Work matters. The subjects for the UC-Irving study -- those "seniors" at Leisure World -- were in their early 60s when record-keeping began. "That model of retirement is fully incompatable with 21st Century longevity," according to the critique's authors. "Employment late in life becomes a tool for both individual longevity and broader economic success."
  2. Financial planning is key. Retirement for members of the Baby Boom and Generation X will not be the same secure, happy decades at the end of life which these Leisure World retirees enjoyed 30 years ago.
My Take
The fault isn't with the show, which just reported on the UC-Irving study. But it should have noted that the study involved relatively affluent people who stopped working under a more benevolent retirement system built in the post-war Golden Age of the U.S economy. That system no longer exists.

When I retired in 1994, a mainstay of that system -- the defined benefit plan that employers provided -- was in place. Most employees then were covered by those plans. Today, hardly anyone in private employment is similarly covered.

Those defined benefit plans had big value. Most employees took their benefit in the form of a regular monthly pension paid to the worker for life, with a survivor benefit paid to the spouse when the employee died. Many plans included the option of taking the benefit as a lump sum based on the actuarial equivalent of the monthly benefit. Not many employees chose this option. But since I was single when I retired, I opted for the lump sum. It was over $800K!

That benefit has virtually disappeared. Of course, I worked 40 years for the same employer and ended up earning a good salary. Still, the largely self-funded 401(k) plans are no substitute for those old defined benefit programs.

And that's not all that's changed since those Leisure World days. I started work in 1955 at $80 a week. But like most workers those days I knew that each year I would get the union-negotiated across-the-board increase, more often than not supplemented by a merit increase. Since my career began while the postwar boom was hitting its peak, every few years I'd get a promotion. And every few years, one  of the big unionx like the Auto Workers or the Steelworkers would negotiate a new "fringe benefit" that gradually would spread to other employers, both union and nonunion. Like most white-collar and managerial workers, I had next to no concern about job security.

That's not the world my kids and grandkids are living in. And it may be as important a factor as not smoking in explaining the longevity of those in the UC-Irving  study. It's why I've dubbed my generation the Lucky Generation.

A More Basic Question: Do I Want to Live to Be 100?
With Parkinson's and prostate cancer, I don't spend much time brooding about that question. But it gives me a chance to end on a lighter note.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is the title of a new book by Ros Chast, cartoonist for The New Yorker. It's a bittersweet look at her life as a caregiver during the final years of her parents' lives. And they lived long lives: her father died at 95; her mother at 98.

Last week, the Washington Post carried a terrific interview with Chast in which she discussed her parents and her caregiving. I ordered the book, and am eager to read it.

Two bits from the interview made me laugh out loud:
  • Chast: "When I hear people trying to figure out how to live until they're 120, I want to ask them: ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?.... They think of an old person as some spry 86-year-old who is still playing tennis and having a gin-and-tonic and is fine. They're not thinking of someone who is 99 or 101 who can no longer see and hear and is incontinent."
  • Asked what might have made things better for her or for her parents, Chast's wonderful reply: "Ice flow. Bye! Like the Eskimos."

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