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Aging is a Woman's Issue

by Betty Soldz

On the brink of a new millennium, women face an issue that presents them with a continuing but, in some respects, new challenge--creatively managing the aging process.  Aging is a woman's issue because our situation is unique to our time. More of us than ever before will be entering what will be the longest stage of our lives: life after 50. When our mothers were born, around the turn of the century, women could expect to live only to the age of 48. Today, if we live as long as age 65, we can expect to live on to be 85.  In fact, more and more of us will live to be over one hundred. As we look toward longer and longer lives, it is helpful to understand both the upside and the downside of aging today and how we can make positive changes which will increase our chance of maintaining independence and staying in control of our lives.
     One of the upsides is that we now live much longer. However, 75% of the elderly poor in the United States are women and the poverty rate of women is highest among those over age 65. Women live an average of five years longer than men; therefore, they will likely live at least some part of this time of life single and, most probably, end their lives living alone. This has important consequences for women. Unless they plan ahead, they stand the chance of living in poverty after the death of their spouse or partner. An increasing number of women are single because of divorce or because they never married or partnered.  If single, they are five times more likely to live in poverty than married or partnered women, and older women of color have the highest poverty rates of all. Many women have worked in jobs that did not provide a retirement income; therefore, without Social Security and Medicare, the degree of poverty for these women would be much worse. We must be vigilant in protecting these programs for those who need them now and  in the future.
     There are many other reasons why aging is a woman's issue: of the seven million caregivers in the U. S. approximately 75% are women. Caregiving has been an expected duty.  Today, older women are sometimes caring for their spouse, partner, friends and siblings at the same times they may be caring for their grandchildren. Many times this leads to depression and chronic illness for the caregiver. The younger caregiving woman may well be working, raising her children, as well as giving care. This may well lead to loss of salary and, even more important, lower retirement income and assets. Caregivers must speak out and ask for help. You might want to plan ahead to finance help in caregiving and to learn how to seek assistance when we can't afford it.  Now is the time to ask ourselves: Who will be our caregivers when we need care?
     Because we may very well be alone in our later year when we need care, planning ahead is important for all women. Most of our daughters, who in previous times would have been our caregivers, are now employed full time, raising their families or even living far from us. They may not, even if they wish to help, be available to care for us. Although sons may help us financially, not many are able to help with hands-on-care. For these reasons, we must find alternatives to family caregiving. I will discuss this issue in depth in another article.
      Lastly, health is near the top of the list of our concerns as we age. It is now known that illness affects women differently than men. Yet as late as 1989, only 14% of the National Institute of Health's budget was spent on women's health research and little money was spent on educating women about their health. Even now, most women believe that the number one fatal disease for women is breast cancer. In fact, heart attacks account for most health-related fatalities. This is partially due to not recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack and physicians not treating women's heart problems as aggressively as men's.  If your doctor has not discussed the signs of a heart attack with you, it might be prudent to speak to him/her about them. 
     It is not well-known that after menopause, many women develop osteoporosis. By age 70, more than 50% of women will develop this condition, increasing their risk of hip fractures and disability. Early bone density testing, increased knowledge about this disease, and new drugs to rebuild bones along with exercise and good nutrition can change these statistics and keep us well.
     I have shared these facts on aging with you because if we start early in the aging process to make changes in our lives, we can change these statistics. We are fortunate to have many additional years of life. To a large degree, with the proper knowledge, we can write our own future; we can map our own journey into elderhood.
      Aging is not a single event, but many events that happen to us over a long period of time. Women beyond mid-life face critical challenges ahead. Planning gives us some understanding about what we can and cannot control. Reasonable planning is enriching and empowering but obsessive planning is not.  If we chart our futures and learn what help is available when it's needed, hopefully we'll meet the challenges ahead, maintain our independence and enjoy the rest of our lives.



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