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Aging and Optimistic? It's More Common (and Warranted) Than You May Think


Optimism among the aged may be more common than you think. By "you," I mean the proverbial you, of course -  you in particular might have no doubt that life doesn't stop being a bowl of cherries at 65. Based on what frequently runs in the media, however, anyone could be forgiven for thinking older Americans are all just downright miserable. So what a surprising change of pace this  "United States of Aging"  survey turned out to be.

See Also: 6 Ways to Feel Happier, Be Healthier >> 

The survey looked at 2,250 Americans over age 60; respondents were broken down into groups ages 60 to 64, 65 to 69, and 70-plus. Even among the oldest group, the responses were far from bleak; in fact, 49 percent said they expected "overall quality of life" to stay the same over the next five to 10 years, and 23 percent expected it to improve. A majority also expected their health to remain the same or get better in this time period. Among all age groups, 75 percent said they expect their quality of life to stay the same or get better of the next five to 10 years. More than two-thirds were confident about their finances in retirement and 85 percent were confident they'd be able to "age in place" without major home renovations.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because I mentioned some of this here earlier in the month, when the survey was first released. At the time, a USA Today article quoted Nick Crofoot, president of the market research firm that conducted the survey, worrying that the results reflected widespread delusion among older Americans. "There is a disconnect between attitudes and reality," said Crofoot. "What that says is that seniors aren't as aware as they could be of some of the health challenges they face."

This week Paula Span, the New York Times' aging issues blogger, e xpressed her own surprise/skepticism about the survey results:

Were the respondents in this survey being wonderfully upbeat? Or, less wonderfully, unrealistic?"

So Span called "a couple of (her) favorite gerontologists" who assured her that later-life happiness was not an oxymoron, perfectly normal and nothing to worry about.

You're seeing resilience," said David J. Ekerdt, a University of Kansas gerontologist. "You're seeing the way we adjust our frames of reference to continue to assert, 'I'm the kind of person who'll be O.K.'"

Social scientists have long recognized a U-shaped curve when it comes to life satisfaction - it's greatest in people's youth and then again in old age. Without climbing the corporate (or whatever) ladder, child-rearing and all the other stresses of midlife to worry about, we become happier. There are also "developmental processes that occur as part of aging that make people more positive," Cornell gerontologist  Karl Pillemer told Span. As we age, most of us get better at regulating our emotions, focusing on sources of pleasure and - to use a cliché - seeing the glass as half full. All of this jibes with the results of a recent AARP poll on happiness after 50. Researchers found the "early 50s are a low point, but it gets better."

The percentage of people who say they are very happy follows a U-shaped curve by age. Those between ages 50 and 55 are the least likely to say they are very happy (16 percent). Researchers say that's likely because of the pressures people feel at this life stage when they're sandwiched between paying for college and caring for aging parents.

By the time people reach their late 60s, 24 percent consider themselves very happy. You can read the whole report here.

Wednesday Quick Hits: 

  • More men caring for loved ones with dementia. Women are still more likely to be caregivers, but the percentage of people taking care of someone with Alzheimer's or dementia who are male has gone from 19 percent to 40 percent in the past 15 years, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

  • Roommates reduce retirement costs. More boomers are sharing housing, according to Fox News. "They came together for friendship, but a lot of people are finding that it's the income that's the motivation," says Annette Leahy Maggitti, co-president of the National Shared Housing Resource Center.

Photo: Patrick Sheandell O'Carroll/Getty Images

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