Date: October 1st, 2000
Something momentous is about to happen in this country. The largest generation in American history is poised to move into retirement, creating an unprecedented "senior boom." By 2030, there will be an estimated 70 million people over the age of 65, twice as many as there are today.
This demographic shift will have a dramatic effect on our nation's economy and almost every social policy imaginable. Yet in this election year, the presidential candidates are squandering a golden opportunity to give this issue the national attention it deserves. If they allude to it at all, they do so only in the most superficial ways.
While they have talked about a prescription drug benefit for the elderly and the need to provide health insurance for all Americans, the candidates have not addressed the larger concern-that is, how to meet the medical, social and economic needs of a huge older population whose life expectancy will reach decades beyond retirement. We look to our nation's leaders to set a course for making this generation the healthiest, most independent, and long-lived generation in history. We expect them to offer a vision of how we might redefine what it means to be an older person in America. Instead, the senior boom and its potential impact on society seems to be absent from political discussion.
Here are some of the issues that the candidates should be addressing:
More Funding for Aging-related Medical Research
Both parties deserve credit for approving a much-needed increase in funding for medical research through the National Institutes of Health. But we are still dramatically under-investing in research aimed at understanding the aging process and how it makes us vulnerable to diseases such as cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's, congestive heart failure and vision loss.
Support for Independent Living
Many older people lead active, productive lives even though they have lost some ability to live independently. Policymakers must encourage the development of technologies that help older people take care of themselves. And they should support research to prevent and treat conditions that rob people of their independence, such as memory loss, vision and hearing loss, incontinence, and physical immobility.
Preparing our Medical Workforce for an Aging Population
Americans face a severe shortage of health care professionals trained in diagnosing, treating and rehabilitating people with age-related diseases. The Federal government,which currently funds most graduate medical education for physicians, nurses and pharmacists through the Medicare program, has the opportunity to shape a well-trained workforce of geriatricians who understand the aging process and can apply new research to dramatically improve the quality of life for older Americans. Instead, both Democrats and Republicans have talked about dropping physician training from the Medicare program altogether to save money. We think this is a short-sighted approach.
Opportunities for Older Workers
Politicians, and society in general, still don't think of older people as a resource when it comes to creating workplace policies and recruiting people for both paid and volunteer work. Many older Americans are willing and able to continue working past age 65, yet they encounter discrimination and financial disincentives to continued employment. Many private pensions, for example, penalize work after a certain age, sometimes as low as age 55. These policies are a throwback to a time when there were labor surpluses and many jobs were too physically demanding for older workers. It is time to change these policies to reflect the new labor force—one which includes older, healthier Americans with much to contribute, well past age 65.
Let's Get the Candidates Talking
The presidential elections offer a once-in-four-year opportunity to draw the nation's attention to important issues, and to make choices about how those issues are addressed. Let's urge the candidates not to throw away this opportunity to make a difference in the health of this and future generations. Let's get them focused and talking.