The average lifespan in the United States has now increased by approximately 30 years, meaning individuals can now expect to live through several more decades. In fact, adults over 60 are now our fastest growing age demographic. Due to the fact that this increased life expectancy is a more recent development, we must now raise the question on how we as a society wish to shape our longer lifespans. Currently, the news of these longer lives has evoked concerning questions amongst policy makers as they fear we cannot afford this rapidly growing demographic. Another question is, how can we better prepare our youth for this increased life expectancy in a way that will benefit all future generations?
We have developed new tools, technologies, and medicines that have helped us reach this new stage of life however, we have not yet equipped these individuals with the opportunities to continue to lead meaningful lives. As humans, we long for feelings of purpose, respect, and independence so much so that the absence of these can actually be declining to our health. In a study conducted by psychologists Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin, the effects of personal responsibility on health within nursing homes was examined. One group of individuals were given the liberty to choose how to arrange their furniture, which events to attend, as well as a plant to care for. The second group was told that the staff would handle all responsibilities such as furniture, events, and plants. After three weeks, the findings revealed that the individuals in the first group all experienced improved overall physical and mental wellness, whereas the second group experienced mostly declining health.
The same study later revealed that the individuals in the second group were also twice as likely to die when compared to those individuals in the first more empowered group. These findings suggest that an integral part of healthy aging is to feel as though you are a contributing and valued member of society. Given these findings, why is that we tend to treat these aging members more similar to the individuals in group two, despite their many years of knowledge, experiences, and capabilities? We must find a way to offer more opportunities for individual purpose in this new stage of life.
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