90-Somethings Are Multiplying, Especially The Ladies

According to a new Census Bureau report, the number of people living to age 90 and beyond has tripled in the past three decades to almost 2 million and is likely to quadruple by 2050. But we all know we’re living longer, right?

Less known are the gender, race, and class patterns behind these Census Bureau figures.

*Women constitute 70 percent of nonagenarians. The vast majority of these women nonagenarians live alone. (While widowers tend to remarry, widows average 14 years on their own.)

*The oldest old are overwhelmingly white (88%); only 7.6% are black, 2.2% Asian and 4% are Hispanic.

*The 90-plus rely on Social Security for almost half their income.

Over the past three years I have followed the everyday lives of 30 elders —a mix of men and women ranging in age from 85 to 102 mostly living at home—to understand how they maintain independence in old age in rural and urban settings.

We have long known that while women live longer than men, they have higher rates of chronic illness and depression. That said, women have a leg up when it comes to self-care (after years of learning about cooking, cleaning, and caring), while men have a harder time making on their own.

Perhaps most surprisingly, nonagenarians maintain independence by asking for help, another gendered skill. Some request that family members or friends to check-in by phone on a daily basis. Others employ a driver, a home health aide, or a volunteer grocery-shopper. Some elders are creating “care villages,” or a neighbor-helping-neighbor volunteer systems, on a grassroots level. By and large, this interdependence enhances quality of life, and helps to ensure autonomy and control.

Most of society associates aging with deficiency, disease and disability. But the oldest old are also resourceful; they are role models. The lessons they can teach us about living in moderation, taking time for themselves, asking for help, keeping a sense of humor, caring for others, and preparing for death provide an invaluable source of wisdom for anyone hoping to live a long and fulfilling life.

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Meika Loe

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