Topic overview

The aging of America, the most significant demographic trend of our time, has profound implications for health institutions, families, workplaces, communities, the economy, even the very concept of a normal life trajectory.

The trend accelerated as the first of 78 million baby boomers began reaching the age of 65 in 2011. By 2030, almost one in every five Americans will be 65 or older, up from about one in eight today. By 2050, 88.5 million Americans will be 65 or older, up from 40.2 million in 2010.

The health care implications are enormous, as seniors consume more medical care and account for a larger share of the nation’s health care spending than any other age group. Especially vulnerable are the “oldest old” – people 85 and above, who tend to be more frail and have more significant medical needs. This group is expected to expand from 5.8 million people in 2010 to an estimated 19 million in 2050.

Reporters on the aging beat will want to follow how scientific and medical advances contribute to better health and longer lives for older adults in the years ahead. Will this new generation of seniors adopt lifestyles that enable them to remain healthy longer as they get older? Will this promise of healthy aging apply equally to all socioeconomic groups?

When seniors develop a chronic illness, how will they get the long term care they need? Who will provide services and who will pay? What burdens will fall on families, and what help will be available from other sources, including the government?

The impact on Social Security and Medicare will be a pressing concern as enrollment swells and fiscal pressures mount. With the aging of the population, fewer workers will contribute financially to programs that support retirees. In 1970, there were almost four workers for every Social Security beneficiary; by 2030, that will drop to just over two workers for each beneficiary.

Meanwhile, as more people become eligible for Medicare – the government’s health program for people 65 and older as well as people with serious disabilities – expenditures will soar from $555 billion in 2011 to an estimated $903 billion in 2020, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

What kind of reforms will be proposed to these entitlement programs, with what potential advantages and disadvantages? And what will become of Medicaid, a key source of long-term care for needy seniors, if health reform advances and states add up to 16 million new members to their rolls, straining already precarious finances?

The social dimensions of aging are equally important, and inextricably linked to seniors’ health and well being. How will communities adapt to aging residents? What kinds of living arrangements, services and supports will be available to older adults who want to remain independent and live at home? How will workplaces and other social institutions change? How will notions of what constitutes a “normal” career be altered and how will expectations for retirement be refashioned?

It’s important to understand that the aging population is becoming more diverse, and that different racial and ethnic groups experience the challenges of aging in different ways. By 2050, Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and other “minorities” will represent 42 percent of older adults in the U.S., compared with 20 percent in 2010.

Your stories will be most successful when you find good data that illustrates important facets of this multi-faceted topic – and then tell the stories of older people who illustrate those points. For that, you’ll need to know which organizations in your community work closely with older adults and which outlets are issuing new data about this population.

You’ll also need to develop some skill in talking to older people who are often nervous about talking about their problems to strangers or in public. Good listening skills, patience, a sense of compassion, and that most basic of journalistic attributes – probing curiosity about how other people live – are in order.


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