For the past few weeks my “Baby Boomer Google Alert” has been filled with one and only one story: The Health of Boomers is markedly worse than the previous generation.
“About 13 percent of baby boomers — the generation born in the two decades after World War II — reported being in “excellent” health in middle age. That compares with 32 percent of the previous generation who said the same thing at the same stage of life, researchers reported in JAMA Internal Medicine…
Overall, about 39 percent of boomers were obese, compared with about 29 percent of the previous generation. Baby boomers were also less likely to get regular exercise.
About 16 percent of baby boomers had diabetes, compared with 12 percent of the previous generation. And baby boomers were more likely to have high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
King and his colleagues also found that baby boomers were more than twice as likely as people from the previous generation to use a cane or walker…”
The IOM already noted, our biggest health challenge in the next twenty years will be “living well with chronic illness.” On the upside, advances in medical science and treatment enable many of us to survive illnesses and conditions that once were fatal. However, there are long term chronic conditions that then come into play, ones that will entail not only a much higher level of sustained care but also will occur at a prevalence not yet experienced: conditions related to cancer survivorship, hearing and sight loss, chronic pain, arthritis, depression, schizophrenia, diabetes, dementia and obesity. The trends pinpointed by JAMA in terms of the current snapshot of Boomer health do not bode well for living well with chronic illness. The vista darkens when we combine that health snapshot with a care giving snapshot: that the generation of children who will one day be caring for them is the Divorce Generation.
The NYTimes yesterday featured a grim story about how changes in family dynamics are connected to an increasing rate of elder suicide in south Korea:
“Even with the explosive growth of suicides in South Korea, the case of the 78-year-old widow was shocking enough to merit attention in the recent presidential election and hand-wringing in the news media.
Rather than quietly taking her life at home as many South Koreans do, the woman staged her death as a final act of public protest against a society she said had abandoned her. She drank pesticide overnight in front of her city hall after officials stopped her welfare checks, saying they were no longer obligated to support her now that her son-in-law had found work.
“How can you do this to me?” read the suicide note that the police said they had found in a purse next to her body. “A law should serve the people, but it didn’t protect me.”
The woman’s death is part of one of South Korea’s grimmest statistics: the number of people 65 and older committing suicide, which has nearly quadrupled in recent years, making the country’s rate of such deaths among the highest in the developed world. The epidemic is the counterpoint to the nation’s runaway economic success, which has worn away at the Confucian social contract that formed the bedrock of Korean culture for centuries…
Kim Seok-jung, who started a company in the southern city of Pusan to care for their belongings, says he is haunted by the case of a 73-year-old whose body was found last February, months after her death.
“The calendar on her wall stopped at October,” Mr. Kim said. “When I see these old people, I see how my own generation will die.”
May this be a cautionary tale for us as a whole to be thinking of how to honor the extended family with economic incentives that enable family care giving and/or affordable, professional elder care at home. In the US, we currently have neither, unless you count Medicaid spend-down, which depletes one’s nest egg for underwhelming institutional care or a care giving waiver program which in most states has a waiting list years long.