For Ethnic Baby Boomers, Health Equals Wealth

For Ethnic Baby Boomers, Health Equals Wealth

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Photo: Seniors stretch in a fitness class at Detroit's Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development. Read about the program here. (Martina Guzman/WDET)

NEW ORLEANS -- Five years after the Great Recession scrambled the retirement plans of many baby boomers, the decisive factor in whether they can afford to get old is not how wealthy they will be, but how healthy and wise they are.

Meanwhile, older Americans are changing their living patterns to reflect their lower expectations for enjoying the decades of leisure that became more routine after the 1960s, experts say.

While boomers nearing the classic retirement age of 65 realize they need to save more money in the wake of the recession, only about 20 percent say they are actually doing so. Their best alternative for a secure old age — working past the Social Security full eligibility age of 66 — will depend on whether they are highly educated and healthy enough to hang onto a paying job.

Longevity Gains Not Equal

“The gains in longevity have not been distributed equally,” said Pamela Herd, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, referring to Americans' increased life expectancy at the Gerontological Society of America's recent annual meeting here.

“It's not just that people with higher education levels live a lot longer; they're also healthier and can work a lot longer. It's not the case that a lot of people can continue working,” she added.

According to a 2013 retirement confidence survey, “As many as 40 percent of retirees have left the workforce before they expected to” in recent years, said Sara Rix, senior strategic policy adviser for the AARP Public Policy Institute.

“Are older people able to work,” Rix asked? “The data, if you read them carefully, don't give you a firm answer. Just because you live longer doesn't necessarily mean that you're healthy; healthy life expectancy has increased, but not as much as overall life expectancy.”

The disparity in education and health levels among boomers of different ethnicities will be an important factor. Fewer American elders in 2020 and beyond will be white.

In 2010, whites made up 80 percent of the U.S. population 65 and older; by 2050, when the number of these older Americans will skyrocket from 40 million to 88 million, only 58 percent of them will be white.

The largest-growing segment of the aging population, Latinos, is characterized by long life expectancies, but also a very high share of debilitating chronic health conditions, like diabetes.

About half of Americans currently 65 and older who are Latino, African American or American Indian should be categorized as poor, said Steven P. Wallace, associate director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. Their income is less than twice the official U.S. poverty level. That’s a more accurate measure of what elders need to make financial ends meet than the federal poverty line, he said.

Any changes in Social Security benefit formulas, Wallace said, will affect these Americans disproportionately. This will continue to reshape the way older Americans' households look and feel — with community solutions replacing the model of single-family homes for retirees that has predominated since the 1960s.

“As the population becomes diverse,” said Wallace, “aging becomes primarily a family issue — particularly among Asians and Latinos. Over a third of older women who are black, Asian and Latino live with relatives other than their spouses, typically in multigenerational families.”

Changing Households

While some of these extended-family households reflect elders' need for live-in caregivers, Wallace acknowledged, there is also a strong trend where unemployed younger adults and family elders move in together and share the proceeds of the seniors’ Social Security benefits.

“In California, it's about half and half,” Wallace said. “And when elders are moving in with children, sometimes it's to help the family with child care. Older adults up until about age 75 actually do more caregiving than receiving.”

Only about 2 percent of women 65-plus live in households with people who are not spouses or family members.

But this is expected to change, as boomers look for new ways to meet the growing cost of housing — 36.2 percent of the household budget for people 75 and over in 2010.

“The biggest expense across all age groups now is housing,” Wallace said, “which was not the biggest expense in 1955.”

With more boomers divorced and childless, options for shared housing are expected to emerge, said Kathy Sykes, senior adviser for aging and sustainability with the Environmental Protection Agency's office of research and development.

“There definitely are many communities, in pockets around the U.S. with more and more people unrelated who are living together,” she said. “You see more attached homes, and people are actually moving into smaller space. You also are seeing older people, who are house-rich and penny-poor, giving younger people a break in the rent in exchange for doing errands or yard work.”

Sykes cited a prediction by Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, that the McMansions of today will someday become the tenements of the aging population.

“Builders are continuing to build for what people wanted before,” she said, “not for what they will want in the future.”

Barbara Peters Smith wrote this article with support from a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. Copyright © 2013 HeraldTribune.com — All rights reserved. Restricted use only.