Redefining old age: Baby Boomers re-write the history books

| April 4, 2013

As Australia’s Baby Boomers get older, Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute Director, Garry Jennings, examines how a new-found sense of longevity is redefining the ageing process.

When Dylan Thomas wrote “Do not go gentle into that good night”, it is unlikely he had the Baby Boomer generation in mind. And yet Thomas’ invocation may well serve as an apt ageing motto for a generation that has consistently challenged the status quo.

At the turn of the 20th century, life expectancy in Australia was 55 years for men and 59 years for women. Thanks to medical breakthroughs and technological advances, the average Australian woman can now expect to live to 84 while life expectancy for men is 79. Between 2010 and 2050, the number of Australians aged 85 and over is projected to more than quadruple to nearly 1.8 million people. This trend will be a major driver of aged care services over the next 40 years, with important implications for health care and end-of-life planning.

But with the Baby Boomer generation on course to become the face of ageing Australia, it is likely that the very process of ageing, along with the support and value attached to it, will need to be redefined in keeping with the changes this generation has ushered in over a lifetime.

Many social commentators have suggested that the Boomer generation is in denial about getting older. This is reflected in the vast numbers who are delaying retirement and the significant number who now say they’ll never retire. Ask a Baby Boomer how old they feel, and chances are they’ll nominate an age at least 10 years younger than they actually are.

This is an interesting phenomenon not without some basis. Today’s 60-year-old has had access to comprehensive health care, good nutrition, abundant health information and a significant improvement in living standards, leading to much better health and wellbeing outcomes compared to what their parents might have expected when they were 60. Much of this is the fruit of medical research.

Of course, some of them are working out of necessity, having seen the value of their investments wiped out by the global financial crisis, but the very fact they are able to participate in the workforce past the retirement age is testimony to the benefits of good health. With this new-found sense of longevity comes a redefining of what it means to be and grow old.

A 2011 Nielsen survey asked participants to define ‘old’. On average, 22 per cent of respondents thought 80 plus was ‘old’ while 34 per cent of respondents considered 60-69 to be ‘old’. Could it be that the extension of a person’s active years well into their 80s will inspire a rethink of age- related labels and the values we attach to these?

The process of ageing and its associated health challenges cuts across a lot of Baker IDI’s research. And while there is inevitability to the general trajectory of age, compounded by genetics, our work confirms that ageing is a process that’s susceptible to intervention.

The benefits of our increasing capacity to prevent and manage disease is highlighted in a recent report by the British Office for National Statistics that predicts that as many as 35 per cent of the 826,000 babies born in the UK this year will still be alive 100 years from now. But good health, underwritten by science, is just one pillar of successful ageing. Longevity needs to be supported by a shift in the way we structure and deliver services for the elderly.

Previously, you were either in or out of a nursing home. However, the gap and variety of options between living independently and end-stage care has expanded significantly and it is likely that the demand for greater diversity in health and accommodation services will continue to grow – driven in part by the Boomer generation.

This will necessitate an expansion in the aged care workforce – not just in numbers but in the skills required to service changing expectations about quality of care and accessibility.

In Australia, the shift to a greater variety of specialised aged services is being driven by demographic change. The next generation of elderly are better educated and more digitally savvy than ever before. Increasingly, they represent a significant block of voters, consumers and retired corporate heavyweights who will demand better services, more accountability and better quality of life.

But despite the changes being ushered in by the Boomer generation, our current health system still has a 20th century focus on the management of illness when it arises, as opposed to long-term healthy ageing with a preventive focus. Ultimately, the best way to tackle diseases of the aged is to tackle the health of the young.

Looking further ahead, the biological processes of ageing are beginning to feel within our reach. If we can understand these even better and intervene at critical points, who knows, Methuselah may become a favourite name for babies sometime this century!


This blog was first published in the Baker IDI Perspectives and appears on Open Forum with the kind permission of the author.