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CNN Today

Baby Boomers Redefine the Aging Process

Aired March 27, 2000 - 2:31 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: The U.S. Census is under way, but the head counters already know the snapshot in the future will show one thing for sure, and that is that 21st century America will be a grayer place. Soon, one out of every five Americans will be over the age of 65. Back in the mid 1970's, noted gerontologist Dr. Robert Butler wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on aging that America is a horrible place to grow old. We'll be exploring that with a guest in just a moment.

First, CNN's Garrick Utley looks at the flower children of the '60s now pushing 60.


GARRICK UTLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): What's wrong with this picture? And this? Or this? The popular image of youth, which can distort what is really happening in an aging America driven by the 77 million strong baby boom generation, which itself launched the youth culture back in the 1960s and has not completely given up its claim to it.

But time passes, and today Dianne Rossi, like one in four boomer families, has to deal with caring for a parent, her mother Mary, 77 years old, who has been diagnosed with dementia. But Dianne, like many in her generation, is not counting on her two children to care for her.

DIANNE ROSSI: I think that my mother's generation assumed that there would be close family ties, that there would be someone taking care. I think that's quite common in families of this generation.

I plan to have a retirement package that will allow me to be self-sufficient.

Improved health care will help boomers live longer, which, in turn, will add to the financial cost of keeping people alive. As the number of the elderly grows, their collective spending power will stimulate more assisted-living communities, more golf courses and workout centers for the elderly, more of everything that the greatest consumer generation ever will want as senior consumers.

(on camera): But it is more than the things boomers have that will likely change attitudes in society towards the elderly. There is also their shear numbers. Since they were young, baby boomers have had the power to shift public attention, first toward youth, more recently middle age, and no doubt they will redefine what old is.

(voice-over): If old age is another country, boomers will try to move the borders.

WALKER SMITH, PRESIDENT YANKELOVICH PARTNERS: We ask baby boomers in our monitor research the age at which they think old age begins. And the average age at which baby boomers think old age begins is age 79 1/2.

UTLEY: Is that realistic or boomer denial?

JOHN ROTHER, LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR, AARP: I think boomers are in their own state, the united state of denial. The reality is at some point they're going to face functional limitations, they're going to face the need to rely on others to maintain their independence. And I think most boomers are simply in denial about that.

UTLEY: Those who cannot escape living in another country for the aged are those who cannot care for themselves and those who don't have the means, the money, to finance their old age.

ROTHER: Well, we could be speaking about as many as one-third of the boomers who are not part of a pension plan today, who -- many of whom do not have health insurance, they are not saving for retirement primarily because they are not making enough. And for them, this is a very risky situation.

UTLEY: Still, the largest generation in American history is also, on the whole, the wealthiest, and determined not to go quietly into the night.

DONNY DEUTSCH, CEO, DEUTSCH ADVERTISING: Old age is going to be "in." The Rolling Stones will continue to tour in their '60s, and that will always be the hot tour. We will not let our legends die. So there is such a power in mass and clout that there will be a redefinition of what hip is. Old will be hip.

UTLEY: And to be hip, senior boomers will try to push the borders of that other country as far back as they can, all the way to 79 1/2.

Garrick Utley, CNN, New York.


WATERS: The author of "Another Country" joins us. Mary Pipher's book explores the country of old age, and if we live long enough that's a place we'll all reside one day. Dr. Mary Pipher joins us from Los Angeles.


Your other country, Doctor, is a place where aging, as you write, is "harder than it needs to be." Yet "Newsweek" in this week's cover story -- I don't know if you saw it -- is on the new middle age. And they write, "The baby boom has always made its own rules, and now it's redefining growing old. Are you not at all encouraged about this redefinition of what old is?

MARY PIPHER, AUTHOR, "ANOTHER COUNTRY": Well, us baby boomers have always been the pig in the python, the big demographic bulge across the century. And we're good at taking care of ourselves. And I predict as we age there will be many new and positive developments for aging. Actually, though, I don't write so much about baby boomers aging as about people who are currently old. That's the area I studied in "Another Country."

WATERS: And that's what unique in all of history about all of this is we have the young-old and the old-old coexisting at the same time, each perhaps with different needs. The old-old needing to have the young-old close by and the young-old working to declare some sort of independence for themselves on down the line.

PIPHER: There's a real distinction between young-old and old- old, and the distinction is physical health. When you lose your health and your ability top do what you've always loved, you enter the territory of old-old age. And that's one of our most difficult life stages. Ashley Montague put it very well when he said the trick is to die young as late as possible.

Most of us like young-old age. It's a good, fun time. Old-old age requires us to have some very heavy losses.

WATERS: And that's a problem in American which is, as you say, is a difficult place to grow old in, specifically in large part because of our cultural distrust of these aging institutions like the old-age homes. I would venture to guess that most old-old would rather die than enter one of these places.

PIPHER: Well I really got interested in assisted living homes as I wrote this book. In the first place, most of the people who run and work in those homes are very good people working extremely hard to take care of our aging population. It's a very complex set of problems running an assisted living home.

On the other hand, one of the issues, I think, for most of us is up until we die we want to be useful, we want to be in control of our lives, we want to have choices. So one of the big decisions people need to make as they age is where are they going to live as they reach old-old age? A lot of times it's a different place than where they would live in young-old age. And in old-old age, it's good to be near people who love you, who will take some responsibility for helping you. It's good to have your children or relatives nearby.

The other thing is it's good for the children to say, we want to help you. It is an honor to help you, to do everything we can to make you feel that they are not a burden to us.

WATERS: You speak in your book of a social sickness, of segregating the old. And you say that media helps with our social misunderstanding. Could you flush that out for me?

PIPHER: Well, we're a very age-segregated culture. We put our 3-year-olds in one set of buildings, our 14-year-olds in another and our 80-year-olds in another. And we all lose because of that. Children don't have enough lap time, teenagers are in a poisonous peer culture, and old people are very isolated.

It's interesting, but most of the media is designed and created for young people. Old people are often caricatures of the way older people really are. We're a youth-worshiping culture. There's a lot of jokes about older people, a lot of stereotypes.

When I interviewed older people and said I'm writing a book on old people, many older people would say, oh, I'm not old. They didn't want to be associated with the word old, because in America is to be old is to be in a disenfranchised group of people.

WATERS: Do we need a new language about who's who in America and their ages?

PIPHER: I like the world interdependent instead of dependent and independent. Interdependent acknowledges that all of us at times in our lives are dependent on other people, at times we're lucky enough to be the people who can care for other people.

I also like the Native American world "elder," which I think conveys a great deal more respect than our world elderly.

WATERS: Mary Pipher, thank you so much for joining us today. The book is called "Another Country," and it helps us understand not only the changes going on but the changes that still must be made in order to make America an easier place to grow old.

PIPHER: Thank you.

WATERS: Thanks so much for joining us.

PIPHER: You're surely welcome.

WATERS: When we come back, we have one of the nation's experts on aging, Ken Dychtwald, who's been with us many times. For 25 years, he's been looking forward to today. He's 50 years old today. Happy birthday, Ken. We'll talk to you when we come back.


WATERS: We're talking about the aging of American today. Ken Dychtwald is one of the leading gerontologists in the United States. He has been studying the "Age Wave," which was the title of his first book. He now has a second called "Age Power." Ken is celebrating the big 5-0 today. He joins us from San Francisco.

Happy birthday, Ken.


WATERS: First thing they say when you turn 50, boy, you sure look good for 50. How many times have you heard that today?

DYCHTWALD: Well, you're the first person other than my wife and kids that I've talked to, and my kids thought I looked pretty old today. So it's nice to hear the good news from you.

WATERS: Yes, you look great.

This article I referred to in "Newsweek," called -- it's about the "new middle age." You're quoted in it as saying that the baby boomer will age "rebelliously." What do you mean by that?

DYCHTWALD: Well, I think we have to appreciate that the boomers are a quirky and strange and wonderful generation -- I'm glad to be a part of that group -- that when the boomers became become teenagers they didn't simply wander into that stage of life and listen to music and go to dances like their parents did, they transformed music and dating and sexuality.

When the boomers bought homes, they transformed the housing market. When the boomers started investing, as we know what's going on now, they have totally transformed the capital markets and the worlds of technology. When the boomers wanted more information, they invented the Internet.

This is a not a generation that has any intention of growing old the way their parents or their grandparents did. They will grow old in some very different ways, it's my opinion.

So this is the new-old that you-re talking about. There have been suggestions that the new-old are being rather Polllyannish about old age. We just heard one say the boomers are in "the united state of denial."

DYCHTWALS: Yes, that was a gentleman, a very special gentleman, John Rother from AARP, and I think this is an organization that has largely catered...

WATERS: Oh, we've lost Ken. Did we lose him permanently? The satellite went down. Darn it.



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