The Graying of America


The Graying of America

America is aging.

In 2000, 35 million Americans were age 65 and older—a 12 percent increase from 1990. Almost half of these 35 million were older than 75. With an aging population comes both challenges and benefits: financially, politically and socially.


An older Native American man standing outside holding feathers. 
An older African American man and woman wearing large beaded necklaces. 
An older Asian American man wearing glasses.

Who are the older Americans?

Most of these older Americans are women. American women live an average of six years longer than men. According to the 2002 U.S. Census, the ratio of men per 100 women steadily declines with age: from 92 men per 100 women age 55 to 64, to 46 men per 100 women age 85 and over. Because women have longer life expectancies than men, older woman are likely to be living alone. Like Irja and Lucille in SUNSET STORY, nearly 80 percent of women 85 and over are widowed.

Older women’s retirement incomes and Social Security benefits are often lower than men’s due to the gender gap in wages. Many older women also worked at home in their younger years, caring for children as well as elderly parents. For these older women, making ends meet is often a struggle on a limited income.

Where are they living?

Many older Americans are living at home, cared for by adult children. Now in their 40s and 50s, after spending decades raising children, millions of “baby boomers” find themselves caring for aging parents. For these family caregivers, emotional, financial and physical stress can often be an issue.

With the rise of home caregiving and other assisted living options for seniors, the number of older Americans living in nursing homes has declined in recent years. In 2000, less than five percent of Americans 65 years and older lived in nursing homes such as Sunset Hall.

Maggie Kuhn, in reading glasses, her hair in a bun wears several badges and buttons pinned to her sweater, as she sits at a table with a piece of paper in front of her.

“Old age is an excellent time for outrage. My goal is to say or do at least one outrageous thing every week.” 
‹Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers

Living options at-a-glance

A new wealth of living options has allowed seniors to choose between living independently, with family or professional caregivers, or both:

Independent living
Also known as retirement communities or senior apartments, independent living is one option popular with senior adults who are able to live on their own, but also want the conveniences of community living. Some of these communities also feature organized social and recreational activities, while others only provide housing with basic amenities. Communities might also be “age exclusive,” limited to residents age 55 and older, health care not included. Because these communities are not licensed by local, state or federal agencies, fees are dependent on private ownership, and can often be high.

Assisted living
Options for seniors combine the residential housing features of independent living communities with the added assistance of personal healthcare. These residential settings cater to seniors who want independence as well as help with daily activities such as grooming, bathing and dressing, but do not need the more skilled medical care found in nursing homes. Assisted living communities might be part of an independent retirement community, or affiliated with a nursing home.

Nursing homes, or skilled nursing facilities
These options are meant for older Americans that need around-the-clock nursing care. They are licensed and regulated by state departments of public health and must meet federal requirements, and are staffed by licensed professionals. These facilities offer many of the same things that assisted and independent living residencies do, such as room and board, personal care and social activities. But unlike assisted and independent living, nursing homes feature on-site medical staff on hand at all hours. Many nursing facilities charge a basic fee for standard services such as housekeeping and meals, with additional fees for services involving skilled medical care. Facilities accept a variety of Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance carriers.

A group of senior citizens—men and women, some in wheelchairs, some with raised fists—pose on the street, one holding a sign reading “Panthers on the Prowl.”
Gray Panthers at an anti-nuclear rally
in Washington, D.C. in 1979

Two elderly men, dressed in cowboy hats and suspenders, play the fiddle and accordion onstage.
Founding members of The Hackberry
Ramblers in 2003: fiddler Luderin Darbone,
age 90 and accordionist Edwin Duhon, age 92
Photo courtesy of Louisiana State University
at Eunice

What are older adults doing?

For many older Americans, an active lifestyle is an important part of aging—and like the residents of Sunset Hall, many seniors find political activism to be a crucial way of remaining engaged with the world. Americans age 65 to 70 have the highest voting rate in the country, followed by those over 75. From protest-leading octogenarians to editorial-writing elders, senior citizens are a vital part of American political life.

One reason for increased political engagement with age is the lifestyle change that comes with retirement. Issues such as financial security and improving Medicare and health insurance options suddenly hit home when seniors find themselves living off of pensions and limited Social Security benefits. Seniors often have more time on their hands after retirement for civic duty, and perhaps an increased desire to “leave a legacy” through political action. Advocacy groups such as the Gray Panthers and the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) have successfully mobilized seniors in working to strengthen Social Security and lower prices on prescription medicine.

Older Americans are also active in causes that not only affect seniors, but those that affect all Americans. Like Lucille and Irja in SUNSET STORY, many of today’s senior citizens grew up politicized during the Depression and World War II. Many remain active today in all spectrums of American politics—from liberal to conservative—fighting for the causes they hold dear, locally, nationally and abroad.

Top photos, L to R:

Corbin Harney, an elder and spiritual leader of the Western Shoshone Tribe
Photo courtesy of Circle of Stories

Tosh Kawahara, a former Japanese American internee
Photo courtesy of Face to Face

Musician Howard Armstrong and artist Barbara Ward
Photo courtesy of Sweet Old Song

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