Who Can Afford to Grow Old?
Congress may have moved on but the challenges of an aging population have not.
Posted Nov 27, 2017
Having failed dismally to replace Obamacare with an improved plan, Congress and the tweet-addled, highly distractible media have moved on to other issues, shiny and new. They seem happy to disregard health care in general, and the aging population in particular as these two related and complex issues require time, effort, and thought.
As much as Washington may want to ignore it, the challenge of an aging population grows literally every day, as 10,000 more baby boomers hit age 65.
And most of them don’t have enough saved for the long haul.
The blessings of long life carry a high price tag. As one financial advisor put it, “Sure you can afford to retire…as long as you keep on working.”
And that’s no joke.
Even if you have saved for the future, even if you’ve been wise and prudent and lucky, and even if you have saved more than average, the cost of aging is formidable. As our years unfold, most of us will eventually require some kind of long-term care, regardless of whether we have a family. Long-term care is staggeringly expensive and, with minor, brief exceptions, is not covered by Medicare.
How far will your retirement savings take you at these prices? (From the Genworth 2017 Cost of Care Survey)
$100,000 a year—the median cost of a private room in a nursing home
$85,000 a year—if you don’t mind sharing a room.
$50,000 a year—if you can manage with just daily help from a home health aide. $50,000 pays for one shift a day; the rest of the time you’re on your own.
Serious medical illness and long-term care costs can easily wipe out your retirement savings.
And what if, like nearly one out of every three Americans, you have no retirement savings at all? Social and economic developments in the last 30 years have undermined traditional means of retirement support. The main middle-class investment, the family home, lost value in 2008 and never recovered. As many as 10 million people lost their houses to foreclosure in that disaster. Pensions have also disappeared; less than 13 percent of American workers have them.
Working people have been expected to manage their financial futures with 401k plans, many of which were wiped out along with their homes in the recessions.
When these Americans retire they will try to get by on Social Security, which was never intended to be the sole retirement income. Despite the cost of living increases, Social Security’s maximum benefit levels are fairly low. Increased health care costs, prescription drug prices in particular, as well as other factors have significantly reduced the buying power of social security since the year 2000.
We are starting to see articles and books published about feisty seniors who continue to work because they have to…greeting customers at Walmart or stocking shelves in Amazon’s huge warehouses. The new seasonal workers are old folks with no permanent address, residents of “Nomadland,” who live in RVs, and chase short-term jobs for as long as their health allows. “Workampers” are older adults working at low-paying, physically demanding jobs with no benefits. Amazon calls these ideal employees “Camperforce” and recruits them to help with the Christmas season rush.
Although as individuals we can’t help but admire their spirit, as a society we must regret their situation.
Can you afford to grow old? For too many Americans, the answer is no. The sunset years are crisis years for wage-earners; people who followed the rules, paid taxes, raised children, and fit the profile of President Trump’s “forgotten people.”
They are still forgotten.
We are all on our way to old age. Given a sense of security, the last stage of life can be a time of creativity as well as generativity, a time for life’s wisdom to flourish and inspire the next generation. We need to take the crisis out of aging.
Bestselling author, Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel Laureate Pearl S. Buck once wrote, “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”
The Psalmist put it more simply, “Do not abandon me in my old age.”