The oldest old: Reaching 90 more likely than ever
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON – The rolls of America’s oldest old are surging: Nearly 2 million now are 90 or over, nearly triple their numbers of just three decades ago.
It’s not all good news. They’re more likely than the merely elderly to live in poverty and to have disabilities, creating a new challenge to already strained retiree income and health care programs.
First-ever census data on the 90-plus population highlight America’s ever-increasing life spans, which are redefining what it means to be old.
Joined by graying baby boomers, the oldest old are projected to increase from 1.9 million to 8.7 million by midcentury – making up 2 percent of the total U.S. population and one in 10 older Americans. That’s a big change from over a century ago, when fewer than 100,000 people reached 90.
Demographers attribute the increases mostly to better nutrition and advances in medical care. Still, the longer life spans present additional risks for disabilities and chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
“If I get stuck with something I can’t handle, I yell for the kids,” says Betty Mae Gutoski, 85, of Muskegon, Mich., who says she expects to live past 90. After all, her father lived to 98. The colon cancer survivor lives alone and says she is “comfortable,” getting occasional help with yard work from her son and grandson, who live next door.
Gutoski said in a telephone interview that she maintains her health by leading a busy life – driving, grocery shopping once a week, sewing, visiting the senior center, volunteering and meeting her friends for lunch – but she acknowledges having some fears. “My big worry is becoming a burden on my family,” she said.
Richard Suzman, director of behavioral and social research at the National Institute on Aging, which commissioned the report, said cases like Gutoski’s are increasingly common. Personal savings for retirement can sometimes be a problem, he said, if people don’t anticipate a longer life or one with some form of disability.
An Associated Press-LifeGoesStrong.com poll in June found that more than one in four adults expect to live to at least 90, including nearly half of those currently 65 or older. A majority of adults also said they expected people in their generation to live longer than those in their parents’ generation, with about 46 percent saying they expected a better quality of life in later years as well.
According to the report, the share of people 90-94 who report having some kind of impairment such as inability to do errands, visit a doctor’s office, climb stairs or bathe is 13 percentage points higher than those 85-89 – 82 percent versus 69 percent.
Among those 95 and older, the disability rate climbs to 91 percent.
• Among the 90-plus population, women outnumber men by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1.
• Broken down by race and ethnicity, non-Hispanic whites made up the vast majority of the 90-plus population, at 88.1 percent. That’s compared to 7.6 percent who were black, 4 percent Hispanic and 2.2 percent Asian.
• Most people who were 90 or older lived in households alone, about 37.3 percent. Some 37.1 percent lived in households with family or others, while about 23 percent stayed in nursing homes. About 3 percent lived in assisted living or other informal care facilities.
• Those who were 90 or older had median income of $14,760, about half of it from Social Security. About 14.5 percent of the age group lived in poverty, compared to 9.6 percent for Americans who are 65-89.