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Aging in America is associated with a group of meanings involving emotional, environmental and physical losses, including declining social status and ruin of self image as the American cultural ideal of 'youthful' can no longer be met. It is a common place to describe the United States as a youth-oriented society, one that worships the young and denigrates the elderly. What it means to grow old in America and what it ought to mean is becoming a pressing issue as the population as a whole ages, thanks both to medical advancements that allow people to live longer. Thus it becomes increasingly important for this paper to understand the popular myths about how "American culture cannot seem to come to terms with aging or death" and the reality of what it is like for most people to grow old.
While the subject of death is less inviolable today then hundred years ago, nevertheless when death is near, American parents let their children know in a hundred ways that it is awful. Sometimes between five and nine it dawns on them that their comfortable existence is not permanent. They discover there is no guarantee it will even continue. They learn that the world which has fed, coddled and cared for them, intends to take back its gift of life. Equally disturbing, their parents who supply them food, shelter and security, the people they think of as permanent, are as mortal as they are. That's just the way it is, they are told, but knowing and accepting are two different things.
Perhaps the most devastating consequence of aging is that these stereotyped negative ideas about old age can actually shorten life. Aging or ageism is different from other kinds of stereotyping in that it is eventually internalized; that is, everyone - if they do not die young - will eventually be old, and all the negative ideas they ever had about aging may be turned on themselves, with potentially deadly consequences. Levy et al (2002) found that people who had positive ideas about what growing old would be like actually lived 7.5 years longer than those who had negative ideas, even when the researchers took into account functional health. Because the results of this study were so significant, the authors call for a comprehensive remedy to the problem of 'socially sanctioned denigration of the aged' (Levy et al, 2002).
A study at North Carolina University found that older adults that are exposed to negative stereotypes did more poorly on memory tests than those exposed to positive stereotypes (Hess et al, 2004). Thus, the so-called memory loss sometimes experienced by older adults - often referred to jokingly as 'senior moments' - may be caused less by age than by the fear of aging.
Ebersole and Hess (2001) stated that older adults are now often away from their usual surroundings when they die; between 55% and 66% of persons older than age 65 die in a hospital or nursing home. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (1996), approximately 17% to 22% of all deaths in this country occur in nursing homes (cited in Meyers, et al, 2009). This number might in fact be higher were it not for the trend to transfer nursing home residents to the hospital in the period immediately prior to death.
According to Kart (1994) aging primarily is a physiological life-long process, starting at conception and ending with death. These changes, both positive and negative, place demands on the aging person's abilities to cope with and adapt to new life situations. It is a challenge for any given society to assist their aged in coping with the new life situations they are facing. Unfortunately, the rapid social changes taking place in society do not always lend themselves toward helping the elderly meet the demands of their life situations. For one, the attitude toward this population is not helping them cope with it as well.
Another great challenge for aging services of the twenty-first century will be the tremendous increase in the number of persons over the age of 65, a group referred to as elders (McInnis-Dittrich, 2005). This population of persons over the age 65 is growing and will continue to grow during the twenty-first century. According to McInnis-Dittrich (2005) that due to both the graying of the baby boomer generation (those persons born between 1946 and 1963) and improvements in health and medical care, the sheer numbers of persons entering "the third age" will be staggering. Social institutions, including the health care system, education, income maintenance and social insurance programs, the workplace, and particularly social services, are bound to be radically transformed (McInnis-Dittrich, 2005).
Current and future generations of elders will undoubtedly forge new approaches to the aging process itself and demand services that reflect positive and productive approaches to this time in their lives. To meet these demands, major providers of services to elders and their families need a wide variety of skills and resources (McInnis-Dittrich, 2005). Various governments and other private agencies, whose task is to take care of the elders, are organizing programs on how they can improve their services. However, at present, with the present situation of the country, there is still a need to do more research on how to handle this special population, the elders.
One other issue confronting the provision of aging services is the accelerated pace of growth of the elderly population. As such policies, facilities, and other resources need to be in place to support this development. If not, adequate care will not be accorded to them. The National Research Council (2001) explained that the world's population is aging at an accelerated rate. Declining fertility rates combined with steady improvements in life expectancy over the latter half of the 20th century have produced dramatic growth in the world's elderly population (NRC, 2001). People aged 65 and over, comprise a greater share of the world's population than ever before, and this proportion will increase during the 21st century. This trend has immense implications for many countries around the globe because of its potential to overburden existing social institutions for the elderly (NRC, 2001). This phenomenon will affect not only most countries globally.
A decade earlier, American aging was envisioned or viewed as a looming catastrophe, as populations top-heavy with frail, retired elderly drain pension and social security funds, overwhelm health care systems, and rely for support on a dwindling working-age population (NRC, 2001). The number of elderly (65 and older) increased more than threefold since 1950, from approximately 130 million (about 4 percent of global population) to 419 million (6.9 percent) in 2000 (NRC, 2001). The number of elderly is now increasing by 8 million per year; by 2030, this increase will reach 24 million per year. The most rapid acceleration in aging occurred after 2010, when the large post World War II baby boom cohorts begin to reach age 65 (Hoff, & Morgan, 2011, p. 250).
Finally, if we look at current conditions per se, there are inadequacies in the care provided to the aging, and this must be sufficiently addressed. The United Nations (2002) has pointed out inadequate provisions for meeting the needs of the elderly, including inadequacies in health facilities, specialized training of health personnel to manage the sick elderly, geriatric clinics in urban centers, homes for the abandoned elderly, social security provisions, implementation of social regulations for the elderly, and recreational facilities.
There is some evidence that as the baby boomer generation approaches old age, perceptions of aging are shifting as well - in a more positive direction. The AARP conducted a telephonic survey in 2004 that was designed to measure the attitudes of Americans toward aging and the elderly (cited in Meyers, et al, 2009, p. 120). The survey included a list of 25 states designed to measure how much knowledge people have about aging. Those who responded to the survey were 'fairly knowledgeable' about aging. They understood, for example, that 'older persons can learn' and that most of the elderly 'can work or want work to do' and that most elderly people 'feel healthy' (p. 121). Overall, the survey noted, the less knowledge people had about aging, the more anxiety they had about growing older themselves.
Globalization and modernization have tremendous impact on the family system. The exodus of working age adults to jobs abroad has established a pattern of the older persons assuming surrogate parental roles. The needs of the elderly were sacrificed which puts the elderly to a situation of disadvantaged. This life condition of the elders will possibly have an effect on their happiness. Being an American, and like a responsible human being, I only to discover my body is the clay of earth, as my conviction that death is traumatic is not universal perception but is culturally conditioned. The subjective well-being of the aged is significantly affected by the sense of social support that they receive from significant others - and I may influence policy and programs that will authentically lend such support. In carrying this journey out, it is critical for me to effectively exercise leadership competencies, particularly having a positive attitude towards change, being a role model, and being results-driven. Ultimately, the end goal is work towards the welfare of the aging.