New Findings About Aging in America: The Top Hopes and Worries

03/22/2017 10:27 am ET Updated Mar 22, 2017

The senior population is growing at one of the fastest rates in American history. Every day 10,000 baby boomers turn 65, and the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2050, the number of people 65 and older will nearly double. At last count in 2014, there were 46.2 million seniors in the U.S.

The aging of America will impact almost every aspect of American life. It will change how and where we live, put additional pressures on healthcare, social services and caregivers, create new dynamics between young and old, and challenge biases and personal views of aging itself. It will also create a significant opportunity to improve the aging experience for all Americans.

It’s with this in mind that the West Health Institute partnered with NORC at the University of Chicago to conduct one of the most comprehensive surveys on aging in America. The survey of more than 3,000 adults gauged the hopes, fears, attitudes and perceptions of aging throughout each decade of life after 30. Five age groups (30 to 39, 40 to 49, 50 to 59, 60 to 69 and 70 to 79-plus) were surveyed about how the country is addressing it’s rising senior population, how they feel about growing older, what things are most important to them as they age, their biggest hopes and fears, and the events or occurrences that they think define “old age” (hint: it’s more than a number).

We found a lot of common ground. Americans deeply care about how the country supports its seniors and what may happen to them personally as they age, and that interest begins well before someone turns 65.

  • About 70 percent of Americans over the age of 30 think the country is “a little or not at all prepared” to address the healthcare and social support needs of its fast-growing senior population, and nearly 6 in 10 believe that the efforts that are currently underway are not going in the right direction
  • Losing one’s memory, developing health problems and not having financial security tie at the top for the biggest worries conveyed by Americans 30 and older. Each was a concern for about 70 percent of the people surveyed, closely followed by losing one’s independence (63 percent) or having to move into a nursing home (56 percent) — worries that persist, but lessen for people later in life.
  • For most adults, growing older is less about turning a specific age and more about maintaining independence. Majorities in each age group say signs of old age include when a person can no longer live on their own, can no longer drive and can no longer do anything to improve their own health. In contrast, fewer than 4 in 10 people say signs of old age include when a person turns 65 or retires from work.
  • More than half of Americans over 30 report being mostly or somewhat optimistic about aging, an optimism that tends to grow among older adults. About half of people in their 30s, 40s and 50s are mostly or somewhat optimistic about aging, compared to more than 6 in 10 people 60 and older. About one-fifth of people are very or somewhat excited about aging.
  • More than 7 in 10 say it’s important that seniors have access to healthcare services, healthy food, affordable housing and transportation, and dental care ranked about as high, though only about 3 in 10 say their community is doing a good job of meeting seniors’ dental care needs. This is notable because government programs provide limited access to oral healthcare for seniors, compared to health, nutrition, housing and transportation.

The West Health Institute survey is a wake-up call for Americans of all ages to translate their hopes and concerns about aging into action. There is an urgent need to support our aging population so we can help people retain their independence and help them age in place within their communities and homes. The survey findings affirm that people are ready to make the investment in our future.

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