With Americans living longer than ever, medical experts recently updated their definition for the oldest of the old—they’re now people past the age of 90, up from 85. This group, along with retirees in general, is now firmly in the sights of government as it seeks to meet the needs of an aging population.
That message was at the heart of just about every panel discussion at Monday’s White House Conference on Aging, a once-per-decade gathering meant to “look ahead to the issues that will help shape the landscape for older Americans.” It’s a worthy topic. Longevity is changing the economic and social picture for everyone. But not all are happy with what seems like a stale approach.
Rather than focusing on things like eldercare and health problems, leaders in this area should be addressing ways to keep seniors active and “debunk the myths and stigma of aging,” Michael Hodin, executive director of the Global Council on Aging, writes in his blog.
Granted, issues surrounding caregiving and the financial exploitation of seniors must be examined. But keeping aging Americans productive—not dependent—is a challenge that calls for being proactive. Likewise, leaders need to adopt an innovative approach to education and saving. They must rethink the whole notion of retirement in a world where young people will have few safety nets, may work 60 years, and will be required to reinvent themselves over and over.
These themes weren’t missing entirely from the conference. Andy Sieg, head of global wealth and retirement solutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, spoke of the importance of paying off college loans and beginning to save early in life. Both of those are Millennials’ issues and by definition require taking far-sighted steps.
Robin Diamonte, chief investment officer at United Technologies, further spoke to the long-term savings issue when she said at her company “we are auto everything-ing,” a nod to the vital role that automatic enrollment of new employees in 401(k) plans and automatic escalation of contributions can play.
Still, the dominant themes of the conference focused on coping with old age and failing cognitive and general health, along with elders’ financial pressures. The best measure of a society is how it treats its older citizens, President Obama said, using the occasion to champion his legacy. Obamacare has extended the solvency of the Medicare trust fund by 13 years and helped nine million seniors save $15 billion on prescription drugs, he said. He called out Congress for not passing a tax-advantaged federal savings program for workers not eligible for an employer sponsored plan—the “auto IRA”. And he promised that by year-end he would roll out “a path for states” to offer such plans.
Also on Obama’s priority list are programs to educate prosecutors about elder abuse, upgrade nursing home facilities and promote flexible work schedules for family members who are caregivers. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced $35.7 million of funding for “geriatric workforce training” to raise the quality of both family and paid caregiving.
Pointing up the critical role that private employers must play in solving longevity issues, Sieg announced that Merrill Lynch would begin working with benefits and human resources professionals at 35,000 companies, offering up the latest gerontology research around continued employment and other retiree issues. Merrill is believed to be the only major bank with an executive gerontologist on staff.
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A panel on financial security noted that the biggest obstacles to a secure retirement for all include expanding the popular concept of retirement to include productive engagement, getting people to save early, and finding ways to convert lifetime savings into lifetime income with easy low-fee annuities. These, at least, are proactive ideas—and that’s where the real solutions lie.