Why we must be active participants in our aging experience

Why we must be active participants in our aging experience

In a year when two of the foundational federal entitlement programs are reaching significant milestones, one must stop and ask: what will my aging experience be like?

This year marks the 80th anniversary of Social Security and the 50th anniversary of Medicare. At the time both of these programs were implemented, no one saw the “silver tsunami” on the horizon.  Today, 10,000 people are turning 65 every day in the United States. Those aging in today’s world must maneuver a complex web of federal requirements, state-led initiatives, local insurance restrictions and primary care physician affiliations to understand how and where the best care and services are available to them.

So what does successful aging look like?  

Confront aging head-on. Acknowledge life will be changing, and plan for it.  Have open conversations with your adult children or designees about your wishes for the next stages of life. The New York Times best-seller “Being Mortal” by Dr. Atul Gawande aptly describes how the many triumphs of modern medicine are at odds with providing a high quality of life for those facing the inevitable conditions of aging.  This book provides the basis for an excellent family discussion.

Accept and plan for financial responsibility by understanding your insurance coverages. Many individuals believe that Medicare is the payer for long-term health care services, and it is only when they are in the throes of a health crisis that they discover this is not the case.  Longer-term stays in a facility are typically covered by Medicaid or private pay depending on financial status, or some long-term care insurance policies.  Additionally, in Pittsburgh, the most popular insurance plans are aligned with one of the two major health systems in our area. Increasingly these systems are restricting or discouraging patient choice, often at the cost of preserving smaller, independent, faith-based organizations.    

Find meaning and remain optimistic at a time when it can be challenging to do so. In an essay titled “Listen, Learn and Live to Be 100,” journalist Neenah Ellis shares what she learned from interviewing centenarians. What keeps them all going, she found, is that they all have plans for the future — something much bigger than themselves to be a part of and look forward to. Dan Buettner, author of “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer by People Who’ve Lived the Longest,” describes the recipe for longevity as being “deeply intertwined with community, lifestyle and spirituality.”  We know many seniors look back to their faith for answers, and it is imperative for any community to provide resources to assist with this journey.

The act of aging in today’s world is not a passive one.  It is fraught with financial challenges, increased technological and pharmaceutical interventions and ethical dilemmas, all within the context of an ever-changing health policy landscape.  No longer do we have the luxury of passively moving into our golden years.  We all have a role in helping to facilitate this transition for ourselves as well as those aging ahead of us.  There is no higher duty and no greater honor than caring for the elderly; it is the Fifth of the Ten Commandments and the cornerstone of all faiths. The Pittsburgh Jewish community is uniquely positioned to create our own “Blue Zone.” A place where we all work together to understand the challenges and opportunities of growing older, and preserve a positive aging experience where every senior is an active participant in their aging process and leads a life filled with meaning and purpose.

Deborah Winn-Horvitz is president and CEO of the Jewish Association on Aging.