'Gift of time' extended, brings new trials, joys

The good news of a longer life expectancy for most people today brings with it a set of issues with which society is still grappling, according to experts in the fields of aging.

Like most of the population in the United States and Canada, Church members are living longer. The life expectancy in the United States has increased from 47 years of age in 1900 to an average of 75 in 1990.While comparative information on Church members is not available, health studies in the past indicate that LDS people live longer and are healthier than the general population. Regarding this lengthening of life expectancy, information about today's older members of the Church confirms that the age group of 65 and older is growing. (See table below.)

According to national population statistics, the percentage of people in the United States between 65 and 74 has nearly doubled in the last 50 years. The percentage of people 75 and older has increased 150 percent. In the next 20 years, the number of people over 65 is projected to increase another 15 percent.

This longer period of retirement - the gift of time - brings with it unequaled opportunities and challenges, according to Dr. Steven W. Heiner, director of gerontology at BYU. He discussed some of these issues in a recent interview in his office.

Issues that older members are most concerned with are:

Health problems and finding long-term health care.

Having adequate finances.

Maintaining independence so as not to be a burden on families.

Finding ways to make the most of this part of their lives.

Crime, as many older people feel insecure in their own homes. (See related articles on finances and health on pages 7 and 10.)

"Older people are a force to be reckoned with. The population is moving to the latter end," Brother Heiner said. "Baby boomers will soon be 50, and the population 50 and older is increasing dramatically.

He said changes that are traumatic to seniors include the "empty-nest syndrome" when all the children are gone and the seniors have more time to do things they previously may not have been able to do. "Then comes the shock of retirement itself.

"The shock of retirement for white collar workers is sometimes more traumatic than for blue collar workers. White collar workers lose a certain amount of status; maybe they won't receive the attention they have been used to. Some have trouble adapting to this, and if they haven't planned in terms of what they want to do, then retirement becomes a greater problem. You just don't retire and then decide to make a plan. You have to develop interests and balance in life prior to retirement. That's important."

Brother Heiner emphasized that "the last part of your life is just as important as any other part." Significant contributions to the Church are made by members over 65, he observed.

He said the Church values older members and now has more opportunities and programs for them. "Temple work, missions, volunteer work, family history work, and ward and stake callings can be extremely meaningful and a way to fulfill your life."

Today's seniors aren't content to sit in a rocking chair, he affirmed. "They are being viewed now as being active and vital and not just put on the shelf.

"Active LDS people believe that learning stays with you. We believe that we gain as much knowledge as possible, which gives vital incentive to function right to the end. That's one of the advantages we have."

Brother Heiner also recommended what he called "grandchildren therapy." Grandparents and grandchildren seem to have a rapport that sometimes doesn't exist between mother and father and young people. Grandparents are maybe a little more relaxed and develop a friendliness that is really admirable."

Many older members spend time keeping fit. He pointed to physical activities and athletic competitions, such as the Huntsman World Senior Games that will be held in St. George, Utah, in October, that provide incentive for fitness.

However, he noted, older members today face a world with a different set of rules than their parents faced. Around the turn of the century, many people lived in rural settings with many family members around them. Grandparents, who lived a much shorter time, could be cared for by their families.

Today, families are fragmented and often live far apart. And today, because people are living longer, many middle-aged children are caring for parents while still rearing their own family.

"Caregiver stress is becoming a real problem," Brother Heiner declared. "It is very demanding, in both directions, and can lead to health problems. The caregivers lose a certain amount of perspective and balance in their lives.

"We are talking about people near retirement age tending a 89- or 90-year-old parent. They suffer premature problems that are stress-related: diabetes, high blood pressure. They are sandwiched in between; they have obligations in both directions.

"This is quite a load, and this has happened because of the extension of life. Caregivers have tendency to neglect their own personal well-being. They are worried about others, and, I think LDS people are more at risk because of their concern for family; that can be overwhelming. They are depressed they can't meet all of their obligations. They are not superhuman.

"Society has a stigma against institutions, and some of this may be justified. But I think federal regulations have helped improve nursing homes. People are getting educated in gerontology and going out now and directing nursing homes, so we have more educated leaders. I think retirement centers and nursing homes have been upgraded tremendously. "

Brother Heiner said he recently placed his mother, who is 93, in a rest home.

"It's hard. It is hard to do that," he explained. "She didn't want to go in, but she's lost some mental capacity and has lost some physical capacity. She can't be alone. It was hard to put her in a care center. It has been very difficult for me."

He expressed concern for the elderly who are frail including Alzheimer's patients. "We should treat them the way we'd like to be treated. The Golden Rule philosophy is of critical importance in treating the frail."

Brother Heiner called for more insight and respect for older members. "When we see somebody 80 or 85 or 90, we can't visualize them as they once were - as architects, or teachers or scholars or athletes; we lose sight of the fact that they were really vital, tremendously active people.

"Getting old is part of everyone's life, unless the person dies prematurely," he concluded. "We need to use older people's wisdom and knowledge; they have a wealth of experience and knowledge that we can tap."


Percent of LDS men and women in age groups 65 and older

1980 1992


65 and older 5.58 7.71 6.65 9.09

65-69 2.13 2.56 2.31 2.74

70-74 1.55 2.05 1.84 2.35

75-79 0.96 1.47 1.26 1.74

80-84 0.53 0.84 0.75 1.22

85-89 0.23 0.47 0.34 0.68

90-94 0.07 0.16 0.11 0.26

95-99 0.02 0.04 0.02 0.06

Aging trends in the United States

Percent of total U.S. population

Age 1910 1940 1970 1980 1990 2010 2030

65-74 3.0 4.8 6.1 6.9 7.3 8.1 10.6

75 and older 1.3 2.0 3.8 4.4 5.0 6.1 8.2

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