06/06/2013 07:01 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

The Truth About Aging In America

The face of aging is changing in America. I've seen proof. Perhaps it's because the Baby Boomers are entering their senior years. That generation of 76 million Americans is on the verge of reinventing "retirement" in much the same way it reinvented other institutions over the past 60 years.

One of the first signs that things are changing is aging is becoming more respectable, and most of us aren't embarrassed by our age, according to a poll about aging in America conducted by the Marist Institute of Public Opinion and commissioned by Home Instead Senior Care, my employer.

Some 86 percent of the 1,247 Americans polled in the random digit telephone survey said it's not right to lie about your age, and only 18 percent admitted to lying about their age.

On average, Americans think 35 is the "ideal age," although the "ideal" is a moving target when you break down the survey results by generation.

  • Millennials, those young people 18 to 30, believe 25 is the best age.
  • Generation X, those 31 to 45, said 31 has that distinction.
  • Baby Boomers, 46 to 65, thought 40 was ideal.
  • And the Greatest Generation, those over 66, said it was 49.

Even though we live in a society obsessed with youth, celebrity and good looks, the research showed that 82 percent of Americans are more worried about losing their memory than losing their looks, which was a concern of only 11 percent.

For the most part, men were more concerned about losing their looks than women -- 14 percent of men and only 9 percent of women were worried about the effect of aging.

One of the most startling -- and encouraging -- results of the poll was that perceptions about the Golden Years differ considerably from the reality.

Overall, about half of Americans say not having enough money to make ends meet and poor health are "very serious problems" for older people. In addition, 37 percent think loneliness is a serious issue.

Those perceptions, however, don't correspond to the reality. Only 14 percent of Americans over 65 consider finances a very serious problem. And only 13 percent said poor health is a very serious problem, while 5 percent cited loneliness.

What can we conclude from these discrepancies? It seems obvious to me that aging isn't anywhere nearly as bad as we fear it is.

This conclusion is borne out even more when we examine the concept of happiness, where generational differences are particularly striking. Nine out of ten Americans say they are "content," including 35 percent who say they are "very happy."

However, a closer look reveals that more members of the Greatest Generation -- 44 percent -- are "very happy" compared with 36 percent of the Baby Boomers, 32 percent of Generation X and 29 percent of the Millennials.

Does our personal happiness increase as we grow older? If so, that's something we can all look forward to, along with the edifying appreciation that the challenges we think come with aging aren't as bad as we fear they will be.

In addition, Americans who reported being "very happy" had common characteristics that contributed to their well being. For example, they were among the oldest respondents, they were optimistic the country is going in the right direction, they usually exercise and consider themselves to physically fit, they're less likely to be working for pay during retirement, and they say religion is an important part of their lives.

When we were growing up, we often heard it said that we could learn from our elders, and this research certainly substantiates that view.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

5 Biggest Myths About Aging