Making More Of a Milestone

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; HE01

President Bush just turned 60 -- and he's amazed how good he feels. "I feel pretty good, you know. Feel real good, as a matter of fact, really," he told Larry King in a television interview. "I feel pretty young. I'm surprised I feel so good. I can remember when I was a kid looking at people 60, I said -- 'Man, there goes an ancient person.' But I feel great."

His surprise is . . . surprising. Maybe he isn't getting good intelligence from the National Institute on Aging; or maybe the people around him keep the latest findings on longevity from his desk. His inner circle -- like much of the country -- is committed to a certain mythology about ancient persons, the feared "Wrinklies" who are growing in number. On the domestic front, it is aging that strikes terror in a boomer's heart.

We are a nation at war with our bodies and our selves. The older we grow, the more we rail against the tyranny of time. But at 60, denial starts to get old. At 60, people are forced to get real. "Well, let me say this. It's a lot younger than you think," joked Bush at a press briefing.

Not exactly a pearl of wisdom, but it shows that the president has learned the first lesson of longevity: Sixty is "a lot younger" than it was a generation or two ago. Researchers suspect that we have gained, on average, 10 biological years over the last century, resulting in longer health spans after midlife. Of course George Bush should feel great! He's only 60. A recent Census Bureau survey found that the majority of older Americans feels great. Roughly two-thirds of people over 85 reported that they were in good health.

The second lesson is more complex: Good health over 60 is not just about jogging and genes and being relatively free of disease. A lot of older men and women who feel great are managing their lives with serious illness. Bush has a personal tutor in his administration on this point. Vice President Cheney, 65, is the poster geezer for how medical science can repair the body so that an ancient person can continue to function.

Cheney's medical history would make the bottom-line managers in any health plan shudder: four heart attacks, quadruple heart bypass surgery, two angioplasties, procedures to implant stent-grafts in arteries behind his knees and a defibrillator to correct abnormal heart rhythms.

But doctors pronounced him in good health after a recent annual physical at George Washington University Hospital. "The vice president feels great," Cheney's spokeswoman told reporters.

The third lesson of longevity involves a math problem: Like Bush and Cheney, millions of Americans feel good and want to stay active and make a difference to their families and communities. A survey by Merrill Lynch found that more than 70 percent of boomers plan to keep working in their golden years. But the workplace is stuck in Old Think. Only about a quarter of employers in the Merrill Lynch survey had any plans to accommodate the wave of retiring boomers with job opportunities.

This is the reality gap in aging. To be sure, a significant minority of older Americans are frail and cannot hold regular jobs. Many others want to work part time. But they all want to be useful -- and to be valued.

President Bush could start closing this gap between ability and opportunity. A first step might be to create a comprehensive national service initiative for Americans over 55 -- with the prestige and public visibility that launched the Peace Corps for young people a couple of generations ago. Such a program would provide needed jobs -- and additional tax revenue. It would showcase the abilities of older men and women. It could experiment with flexible work schedules and innovative benefit and compensation packages, challenging recalcitrant employers to follow suit.

The building blocks are already in place: The government operates Senior Corps, which staffs programs such as Foster Grandparents. The private nonprofit Experience Corps, funded in part by federal dollars, sends teacher aides and mentors into elementary schools. The Senior Community Service Employment Program, funded by the Department of Labor, provides jobs and training for low-income men and women 55 and over. And the Peace Corps is attracting more volunteers who are older.

But most of these programs are on the political back burner. They lack the flair and funding needed to change social attitudes toward aging and provide real opportunity for older Americans.

Now that the president has blown out the candles on his birthday cake, maybe he can consult with the Veep about his new role as an ancient person and turn the personal into public action. It's time for the country to get real about the challenge of living longer, healthier lives. ยท

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