By 2050, the number of people over 65 will more than double. Cities, communities, companies–and our entire culture–have some adjusting to do. If we can, the benefits will be enormous.
Patrick O’Halloran is 82 years old, “but I’m still a work in progress,” he says. After a long career as a Jesuit priest and a clinical psychologist in San Francisco, O’Halloran retired to the northwest part of San Mateo, California, where he lives alone. He’s sprightly: His exercise routine includes circuit training, cardio, and boxing, and he volunteers at a nearby jail, teaching classes in mindfulness.
O’Halloran’s doctor tells him he has maybe five to 10 years left living on his own, but he’s considering a move to a senior center sooner; he’s social, and he doesn’t like living without easy access to people to chat with. But there’s one sticking point. “I need to talk to young people–millennials,” he says. “At the senior center, I can sit down and schmooze, talk about jitterbugging,” he says. “But it’s all the same perspective.”
Like many people heading into their later years, O’Halloran has found himself in a bind. He’s not ready to give up on the things that give him energy–communication, conversation, sharing different experiences and perspectives–for the homogeneity of a senior center. But as an older person in America, he finds himself in a world that’s not set up to receive what he can offer. “It’s the saddest thing we hear people say: Our world starts to die around us before we’re ready to,” says Vandana Pant, the senior director of strategic initiatives for Palo Alto Medical Foundation, which provides senior care services in San Mateo, where O’Halloran lives.
Like climate change, says Paul Irving, the chair of the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute, the graying of the U.S. population–and that of the whole world–is a phenomenon that has been a long time coming, but that we remain largely unprepared to confront. The fact that science has basically doubled lifespans in the past century and a half, Irving says, “is maybe the most extraordinary accomplishment in the history of mankind.” But unless we shift our attitudes and responses to aging, it will go from being a miracle to a crisis.
Underpinning both the infrastructural and economic shifts that must occur to accommodate the rapidly graying population is something more intangible: We need to adjust our overall attitude toward growing old. As a culture, we tend to treat aging as a separate phase, not an extension of the same life. “You see people in retirement communities and they’re infantilized, spoken to as if they were infants even though they’ve lived these rich lives and had remarkable experiences,” Irving says.