Growing Old in the Midst of the Youth Craze

No other country celebrates youth as much as the USA. That millions of elderly can barely survive without state help is only slowly being recognized as a problem.

Carmen Rosado does not like to sit, but her knee is causing her problems this morning. “That is the price of age,” she says with a Puerto Rican accent and deep voice. Rosado stands in the foyer of a large brick building and presses her cane into the linoleum floor. Flooded with pale fluorescent light, the room is not what one would call comfortable: a few chairs here and there, but otherwise, it is bare. The view through the window reveals a little bit of green along the edge of the street. The building, located in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, radiates the undecorated anonymity of the big city. Nevertheless Rosado is thankful to be here.

For 12 years, she has lived with her husband in one of the one-room apartments in the senior center. Previously, they had lived on top of a bakery. The constant steam and exhaust made her sick, she says. The couple sent numerous applications to social housing for seniors and landed at 1,900 on the waiting list. It is almost a miracle that they received an acceptance, says Rosado, although only 10 years later. “This facility was the first and only positive answer we received.” Her husband had been skeptical, but she said to him, “Nowhere else will we be accommodated.”

Rosado is 67 years old. As a child, she moved with her family from Puerto Rico to New York; later, she worked as a housemaid. Other than her husband, who is 79 years old, she has no one else.

The U.S. does not make it easy for its elderly. No other country celebrates youth as much as the land of dreams. The film and advertising industries sell youth and beauty more than anything. “The majority of Americans still perceive aging as something negative,” says Jacquelyn James of the Boston College Center on Aging and Work.

That also shows up on the job market. More than half of all those unemployed over 50 have been without a job for more than six months, and whoever can work must often be content with lower-paid positions, part-time work, or worse working conditions than before. Experience has less value in the U.S. job market.

It is high time that the country get accustomed to growing old. By 2050, the number of Americans who are older than 65 will almost double in comparison to 2012. The baby boomer generation is coming of age, and the burden of an aging society is already noticeable in the social system. But instead of preparing for this, budget cuts were handed down from Washington. The programs for food stamps and basic care through Medicare and Medicaid have been trimmed down, thanks in large part to pressure by Republicans in Congress.

Additionally, more than half of all Americans over 55 have no savings for retirement. That fact was published in a report by the U.S. comptroller. Pension plans through employers are rare. The overwhelming majority of retirees cannot meet the basic standard of living, according to the Center for Retirement Research in Boston. One result is that Americans may have to work longer than in previous years, says economist Katharine Abraham of the Maryland Population Research Center. As of now, the average retirement age already sits at 66 years old.

Food Stamps and 12-year Waiting Periods

Rosado herself can barely make finances stretch to the month’s end. She has between $750 and $800 available to her per month, plus food stamps for shopping. Just like 50 million other Americans over 65, she receives state support. It isn’t easy to make do with just that, she says. The tax-financed Medicare program absorbs one-half of the doctor’s bill; for the rest, she has to either submit further applications for money or pay herself. Many residents of the senior facility go regularly to the soup kitchens because they cannot afford to shop for groceries for themselves.

But the Rosados and their neighbors have luck on their side. They need to pay less than $200 in rent here; the city carries the rest. At market cost, rent would quickly rise to five times that amount. As a result, the demand overtakes the capacity. There are people who have applied for a place since 2003 and are still waiting, says Shebana Fakira. She is a social worker and has been working at the facility for eight years. She helps the seniors with their applications, organizes transportation and care services. For whomever does not receive accommodation, she says, only family remains an option. “We are burdensome,” says Rosado.

The Drumbeat of the Older Generation Can No Longer Be Ignored

Despite everything, the view of the elderly appears to be slowly changing. The film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” about a group of seniors who establish a hotel in India, brought in almost $50 million in 2012, and a sequel came out this year. The luxury brands Céline and Yves Saint Laurent caused a stir a few weeks ago when they had the 80-year-old author Joan Didion and the 71-year-old folk singer Joni Mitchell photographed for their ad campaigns. Stars like Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon are, although beyond 60, still in demand.

In light of these examples, age is also being prized once again in American society, says Marc Freedman, founder of Encore, an organization that helps people over 50 with planning their professional future. Even firms like Google are researching age, and former businessmen and former presidents are remaining active in the public long after their careers end. This guarantees a constant drumbeat of the older generation – an unmistakable cultural force in the background.

It even might eventually be heard in politics. With Washington, a few days ago, one more state has initiated a program that is supposed to make more companies pay into their employees’ pension plans. The hope is that the budget cuts in Washington will be at least somewhat mitigated.

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