Aging and the Story-Demographics Counterpoint

The 2040 Initiative is big on facts and figures: Facts and figures show us the big picture and help us see where and how we fit.

The 2040 Initiative is also big on stories: Stories bring us into each other’s reality and remind us of the infinite texture of human experience.

Facts and figures take us outside ourselves; stories take us into each other.

Two novels I finished recently called me to reflect on the experience – demographics and story - of aging.

Demographics: In the U.S., the Baby Boom generation is the bulge passing through the demographic snake. This year, the oldest Boomers are on the cusp of turning 70. A generation from now in 2040, 80 million Americans will be over 65 years of age, comprising 20% of the entire population as versus 12.9% in 2009.

Story: Elizabeth is Missing by British author Emma Healey introduces us to Maud. Maud is around 80 years old and, we learn quickly, sees the world through an increasingly heavy Alzheimer’s veil. Healey’s poignant account allows us to experience Maud’s world – a world in which the people who surround Maud in the present become fuzzier and fuzzier while the people from her childhood remain vivid and clear.

In the present, we meet Maud’s daughter Helen as well as Helen’s daughter. We experience Maud’s anxiety as she searches for her longtime, yet “disappeared” friend Elizabeth. Interspersed with today are windows to yesterday. Maud takes us to her past, and we revisit her relationship with her older sister Sukey, who also went missing when Maud was a teenager.

Elizabeth is Missing enables us to see Maud’s world through her own eyes. And we experience with her both the in-and-out of her memories and their more gradual ebbing over time.

Demographics: More older Americans will mean more people with Alzheimer’s Disease.  Today about 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer’s; there may well be more than triple this number by 2050.  Obvious effects of this jump include higher economic costs: Alzheimer’s accounts for about 1/5 of all Medicare costs, and the costs of caring for seniors with Alzheimer’s are orders of magnitude greater than caring for seniors without the disease.  Less obvious implications include a disproportionate burden on women: Women (such as Maud) are more likely to suffer from the disease (1 in 6 women over 65 compared to 1 in 11 men), and women are more likely to be unpaid caregivers (more than 3 in 5 are women).

Story: The Night Guest by Australian writer Fiona McFarlane invites us into Ruth’s world. Ruth is a widow who lives alone outside of Sydney. One grown son lives in New Zealand; the other in Hong Kong. One night Ruth wakes and imagines that she hears a tiger in the next room. A troubled call to her son leads to the arrival of Frida, a kind of home aide who takes charge of Ruth and Ruth’s life.

Again we accompany Ruth into her past, especially her childhood in Fiji with her missionary parents. The emphasis, however, is on Ruth’s present and especially on her increasingly fraught interactions with Frida. As Frida’s influence ascends and Ruth’s strength ebbs, we experience the vulnerability of the isolated.

The Night Guest, like Elizabeth is Missing, shows us Ruth’s world through Ruth’s eyes.

Demographics: More older Americans will mean more older people living alone. Currently, about 28% of (noninstitutionalized) elderly people live alone. Women are again disproportionately affected: 8.4 million older women (such as Ruth) compared to 3.7 million older men live alone.  And over the next 20 years, according one housing study, “the number of people over the age of 75 living alone will nearly double … [and] the majority … will be women.”

Story and Demographics – a 2040 Counterpoint…

Palma Joy Strand


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