Interview Essay on Aging

Interview With an Old Person

The increase of the elderly populations in all countries of the world has become a reason for great joy, but also for a significant concern. With advances in medicine, health care, and exercise science, people live longer today than ever before, enjoying better health and leading a satisfying lifestyle. However, because of the rising number of people who live well into their seventies, eighties, or even longer, many communities and governments start to find difficulties in ensuring proper care and support for them due to increasing costs and lack of resources. The elderly, on the other hand, are concerned whether or not the government programs will last and if they will be able to sufficiently meet their needs, as many of them have insufficient retirement plans.

I had the pleasure of talking to Linda, a seventy-year-old white woman who, despite being overweight, seemed to be in a reasonably good health. She was bright-eyed, alert, and fun to interview. She looks younger than seventy, and I believe she is one of those young-old types of people. After fixing a cup of coffee, Linda and I started right with the interview. The questions are bolded and Linda’s responses are in italics.

1. Have you experienced a lot of changes in your lifestyle as you’ve gotten older? For example, in regard to what you like to eat or how you exercise? Are you able to do the same things as when you were younger?

I don’t really think things have changed very much in my adult life. I eat pretty much the same food I ate when I was younger, although I might try to eat more vegetables now. I used to work a full-time job and now I am retired. It started to take me longer to accomplish things as I’ve gotten older. I have the same hobbies, though some of them have indeed changed. I have more health problems now than when I was younger. I used to be able to walk much easier, but it’s understandable, considering I’ve had my hip replaced. I have problems with my back, so I find it difficult to stand for a long time. I started working out regularly about fourteen years ago, when my husband retired. (Do you like it? Do you think it has helped?) I mostly swim because it’s easier for my joints — it’s a low-impact aerobic exercise. I haven’t lost much weight over the years, it comes and goes, but I hate to think how much I would have gained if I hadn’t been exercising regularly all this time!

While Linda seems to have good eating habits, many elderly lack the funds or ability to get food for proper nutrition. This is a concern addressed by many organizations, and research conducted by shows that over 8% of seniors worry about getting sufficient food, and over 56% of their elderly clients who use food pantries return monthly for food assistance (“Spotlight on Senior Hunger”). While hunger is a concern among all demographics, the elderly represent a disproportionate amount. Even though Linda’s weight is an issue, she moves around well and has benefited from regular exercises over the recent years. Like many elderly people, Linda recognizes that being active and doing exercises can have a great impact on her health while also reducing her chances of being affected by degenerative diseases. According to one of the studies, people over 70 are by 33% less likely to have problems with getting around — walking or climbing stairs, if they participate in regular exercises (Kritchevsky, et al., p. 691-698). Linda is right to worry now that she is 70, because her life could have been much more difficult if she had not begun to train regularly all those years ago.

2. Thanks! I wonder, what kinds of challenges have you faced in your health? As you’ve gotten older, what new problems have arisen and how did you handle them? Do you take a lot of medications, and do see your doctor more often?

I’ve always had problems with my back because I have a vertebra that is out of place. Now, however, I have arthritis, and about forty years ago I’ve developed a stomach hernia and acid reflux. I take prescription medicine for that, though it took some time to get used to it. I had a total hysterectomy when I was 47, so now I also have to take a hormone replacement. I was on PREMARIN, but my doctor switched to other kind of medicine, because according to him, more women who took it started having heart attacks. I have also been taking a low-dose cholesterol medication for about ten years now. (Do you find it difficult to manage your medications?) No, I have a pill caddie to help me organize which medication to take and when to take it. I see the doctor twice a year for blood tests, but otherwise I only see him if I feel ill or something. I’ve had problems with my sinuses for most of my life, but it worsened as I’ve gotten older. I’ve also had about four major surgeries for gull bladder, hernia, appendix, and my hip about a year ago — I’ve mentioned it earlier. Sometimes I notice that I have a harder time hearing someone if some other noise is in the background. Of course, my eyes got a bit worse and now I need glasses for reading and knitting, but not for driving or watching TV.

Linda faces problems which are common for many elderly people, such as arthritis and some loss of hearing or vision. Her medication for hormone replacement is also common among women after a hysterectomy. Linda mentioned her doctor changing her hormone medication, the consumption of which a study conducted by the National Institute of Health linked to an increased risk of heart disease (“WHI In dbGAP”). Due to her weight and other factors, Linda decided to have a hip replacement nearly a year ago. This kind of replacement surgery is fairly common today, and osteoarthritis affects approximately one-third of people over 65, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (“Hip, Knee Replacements May Boost Cardiovascular Health”). Using a pill caddie is also something many elderly find necessary to help them keep track of their medications. The average senior takes roughly five prescription medications daily (Mann). While many seniors have far worse conditions of life, despite Linda’s appearance of good health, she suffers from several issues, but through proper health care she successfully manages them.

3. What about your mental ability? Do you think you’ve gotten smarter as you’ve aged? Is your memory still good? How do you handle everyday problems and crises?

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I think I’ve gotten more… I want to say resolute, but that’s not the word I’m looking for. Stress doesn’t bother me as much as it used to, it’s easier for me to deal with everyday problems, and when things go really wrong I don’t get as frustrated. When you’re in your twenties and things go wrong, it is like the end of the world, but when you’re nearly seventy, things don’t bother you so much. I haven’t gotten any more book smart as I’ve gotten older, but I have learned a lot of life-lessons. My memory is probably not as good as when I was younger — sometimes it takes me a while to remember people’s names and other things, so I find I use lists more and more often. (That’s interesting, can you give me an example?) Like last night, I had written a list of people I needed to call today before I went to bed, so I wouldn’t forget. I also deal with problems from different perspectives now, and I know that getting older has let me see things from different viewpoints.

Linda supports the idea that intelligence does not lessen as we age normally, and says that she has benefited from “life-lessons” that helped her. Her words about loss of memory are typical, as older adults can experience problems with short-term memory, and Linda has compensated for this by using lists to help her remember the important details. Getting organized was one tip suggested by the Mayo Clinic (Mayo Clinic Staff) to help handle the issues caused by memory loss. By changing her behavior and environment, using lists and keeping paper and pen nearby, Linda found her solution to her memory problems. Sadly, many older adults are often severely affected by forms of dementia that impair their ability to function without assistance. The World Health Organization estimates that over 20% of adults of 60 years and older suffer from mental or neurological disorders (“Mental Health And Older Adults”). The need for care is increasing rapidly, and a variety of options is available, from home care to assisted living or nursing homes. However, they can be very expensive and difficult to afford for seniors and their families.

4. It’s wonderful that you’re doing great. You’re married, right? Do you have children or grandchildren? Do you see them often? What do you do for your family — are you a caregiver for anyone? Does anyone help take care of you? If you became disabled, who would help you?

I am married and recently celebrated my 50th anniversary. I have one living child — my daughter died several years ago, and my other son died shortly after his birth. I have one grandchild from my daughter’s marriage. My son is 43 and I see him daily as he lives with me and my husband. Unfortunately, my grandson is in jail, but I see him every other week and hope he will be out soon. Even then though, I won’t see him often, maybe two or three times a month, when he needs money. I provide financial support for my grandson and assist my son while he is living here. Despite this, I don’t consider myself a caregiver for either of them, or for my husband. My son helps around the house, mostly with laundry and dishes, vacuuming and taking out the trash — typical chores, though he also cooks from time to time. As for your other question — it would depend on how disabled I was. If the situation was really difficult, then my family would probably look into homecare or assisted living options, but otherwise, my husband and son would take care of me.

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Linda is fortunate to have such a long and apparently healthy marriage. Although she has dealt with the tragedies of losing two children, she enjoys the support of her remaining son who helps her and her husband around the house. It wasn’t surprising to learn that he lives with mother, as according to census reports, more and more adult children start living with their parents (“More Young Adults are Living in Their Parents’ Home”) — roughly one-half of adults aged 25-34 are doing it. This is consistent with the trend growing in recent years, as younger adults are less financially secure than their parents. Linda realizes that as much as her husband and son love her, for many spouses and children the burden of caring for a disabled older person at home is too difficult to bear, and they are forced to rely on nursing homes. This might be due to distance, time issues, having younger children at home as well, or several other factors. In a CDC report, an estimated 1.4 million seniors are currently residing in nursing homes (Centers for Disease Control, p. 11). It is a sad reflection of our times, because such individuals lack a support system sufficient to see to their needs. This is, unfortunately, one direction our culture has embraced.

5. Now, I would also like to know if you have invested in your retirement plan, and if yes, then how you did it. Are you concerned about financing your life as you grow older? Do you think you will keep your house? What will happen to it if there occurs a health crisis or a need for an assisted living?

Oh yeah, everybody worries about that — about your estate being swallowed up by the assisted living. I didn’t invest anything, we just used money that I earned, but my husband’s money was invested for our joint retirement — around 401 thousand. Of course, we both receive Social Security benefits, and he has his pension which I’ll receive should something happen to him. We will start using our retirement fund when we need additional money. (So you feel pretty secure about money then?) I don’t worry about financing my life. I figure I’ll adjust. I don’t really worry about it, not like my husband does, and I figure we might have to change things, but we’ll be okay. We transferred the rights to the house to our son about five years ago, so if anything happens and we end up using the assisted living, he will keep the house.

As Linda demonstrates, she relies on three common retirement resources for her finances: Social Security, her husband’s pension, and their personal investments. Her situation places her firmly in the class of middle-income elderly, and she seems to understand her fortunate position to be there. For many elderly beneficiaries, Social Security can represent 50-90% of their retirement income (“Social Security Basic Facts”), and they have limited pension benefits or none at all, having to rely on meager savings supplemented by Social Security. Linda also made plans to protect her house from being “swallowed up” should she or her husband suddenly need more expensive care. This is a fear typically felt by older people who are concerned about losing their homes due to medical expenses. It is a sad story, but too often a true one, as medical costs for home care, assisted living, and nursing homes can easily outstrip the financial resources available to the elderly.

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6. You mentioned Social Security and pension. Do you think Social Security and Medicare can sufficiently help the elderly get by? Would you like to see the government more or less involved in supporting older people? Should the government provide the long-term care?

No. No, I don’t think so. I believe a lot of people only have Social Security and sometimes they have to decide whether to buy their pills or their food, and I don’t think that’s right for this country. I think the government should do more to support older people. (What would you suggest?) I believe older people should pay an even lower percentage taxes, and I think the government should have better programs for receiving medication for people who need it. I don’t think anyone should have to worry about paying for drugs. I don’t think that’s right, I really don’t. (This seems like a big issue for you. Why?) It is a big issue, because I have a lot of friends who have problems with buying prescription drugs and feeding themselves. Making elderly people go to companies and ask them for grants or assistance to pay for medications is degrading. We have good insurance, but we pay a lot for it. Between the two of us. it is about $500 a month for medical insurance! None of us had the foresight to do investments when we were younger, like they’re telling our kids now.

Although Medicare does a lot for covering medical expenses for the elderly, it often can not sufficiently function on its own. Linda was visibly upset about friends who have trouble paying the high prescription and medical costs and affording a decent lifestyle simultaneously. With many Medicare beneficiaries paying out-of-pocket expenses of several thousand dollars per year (Cubanski, et al.), it is still exceedingly difficult for seniors to get by. In addition to co-pays, seniors typically pay for additional insurance, as Linda does. She offers some good ideas for seniors and benefits that they could receive, and she seems to be in favor of free public healthcare. Linda’s comment about not thinking to save money earlier in her life should definitely be a message to young adults, because the programs that assist the elderly for now might not be available to them when most needed.

7. What’s the best thing about being your age now, and what do you find the most frustrating about aging?

The best thing about being my age now? I am very comfortable in my own skin. I am very comfortable with being who I am. I don’t mind being seventy — I don’t really feel seventy. I don’t care as much about what other people think or how they might judge me. The most frustrating part is that I am not physically able to perform a lot of tasks I used to do before. You tend to slow down with age, and my biggest health issue is being overweight. I know I would still have some limitations due to my age, but weighing less would still make a difference. I am lucky that I don’t have a lot of the health problems which many of my peers have, and I can only hope I am doing as well as my mother when I am older! She recently turned 91, she lives alone and cares for herself! To me, that is amazing and I wish other people were doing as well.

Like many seniors, Linda experiences less anxiety than younger adults. She has embraced who she is, and although she still sees areas to improve upon, she is happy. She remarks about not feeling seventy, and this reflects on her being a type of young-old person. Linda seems quite comfortable with her situation, and although she has some concerns, she does not have many of the troubles other elderly people face. Her frustration about not being as physically capable as when she was younger is common for elderly individuals. Her empathy in regard to the situations of her friends is admirable, and Linda recognizes that for many seniors, things are much more difficult. While the advances in medicine, health care, exercise, and other fields extend life expectancy and increase the number of population of older adults in many countries of the world, younger adults and governments must possess a foresight in regard to the potential problems of their future, and seek solutions before such problems occur. Although young adults have the opportunity to help the elderly and prepare more adequately for their own retirement, there is also an imperative need to implement changes now. Too many seniors suffer from hunger and concerns for essential funds to pay the bills, deal with burdens of supporting adult children and grandchildren, and worry about the future in general when lacking necessary support systems. Retirement should be a period of ease and relaxation, where an older person can enjoy the lifelong fruits of their labor and spend their time comforted by the knowledge they have security. Hopefully, the problems the older adults face will be solved before they become worse.

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