What's Most Important for Seniors' Quality of Life?
Relationships with friends and family outweigh financial concerns among older Americans seeking fulfillment in their senior years, according to the second annual United States of Aging Survey. When asked what is most important to maintaining a high quality of life in their senior years, staying connected to friends and family was the top choice of four in 10 seniors, ahead of having financial means (30 percent).
For the 2013 edition of The United States of Aging Survey, the National Council on Aging (NCOA), UnitedHealthcare and USA TODAY surveyed 4,000 US adults including a nationally representative sample of seniors ages 60 and older. This year, for the first time, the survey also included a nationally representative sample of adults ages 18-59 to provide contrasting perspectives on aging and explore how the country could better prepare for a booming senior population.
The results of the 2013 survey are being released today at the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) 38th Annual Conference in Louisville, Ky., as part of a broader effort led by n4a, NCOA, UnitedHealthcare and USA TODAY to educate seniors and stakeholders in communities across the country and support further awareness and understanding of senior perspectives on aging.
“The United States of Aging Survey shows us that seniors are an optimistic group,” said Rhonda Randall, DO, chief medical officer, UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement. “By learning more about seniors’ priorities, successes and unmet needs, we hope to identify the services, programs and infrastructure that may best support older adults so that future generations of seniors can have this same sense of optimism as they age.”
The importance of connectivity
The survey finds that seniors are driven by a desire for connectedness. More than half of seniors (53 percent) nationally indicate that being close to friends and family is important and only 15 percent report occasional feelings of isolation. Eighty-four percent of seniors nationally cite technology as important to their ability to connect with the world around them.
Seniors who report experiencing feelings of isolation and depression express less optimism regarding their future health and quality of life compared with seniors nationally: 37 percent of isolated seniors believe their overall quality of life will get worse in the next five to 10 years (compared with 24 percent of all seniors), and 32 percent of isolated seniors believe their health will get worse, compared with 23 percent of all seniors.
Low-income seniors also face challenges. While they cite technology as important to staying in touch with family and friends (81 percent), issues of technology access persist, with 47 percent of low-income seniors reporting cost as a barrier to using more technology, and 48 percent indicating they have trouble understanding how to use technology.
Taking care of health associated with optimistic outlook
The 2013 United States of Aging Survey finds that seniors have maintained a positive outlook on their future and the aging process. Eighty-six percent of seniors say they are confident about their ability to maintain a high quality of life, and 60 percent expect their health to stay the same during the next five to 10 years (compared with 53 percent of adults ages 18-59).
The survey also finds that women and African Americans are among the most optimistic about growing older. Of the most optimistic seniors – those surveyed who expect their quality of life in the next five to 10 years to be “much better” or “somewhat better” – 65 percent are women and 18 percent are African American, compared with the national sample comprising 55 percent women and 8 percent African Americans.
Seniors focused on taking care of their health are more optimistic about aging. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of optimistic seniors have set one or more specific goals to manage their health in the past 12 months, compared with 47 percent of the overall senior population.
This and other findings reveal important opportunities to help seniors improve their health. While 65 percent of seniors report having at least two chronic health conditions, less than one in five has received guidance in the past year to develop an action plan for managing their health. Additionally, 26 percent of seniors nationally indicate they exercise less than once a week for 30 minutes or more. Low-income seniors face additional challenges, with 74 percent reporting at least one barrier to managing their health condition, such as lack of energy or money.
“This year’s survey points to the impact of health on an individual’s ability to age successfully,” said Richard Birkel, Ph.D., senior vice president, healthy aging, and director of the NCOA’s Self- Management Alliance. “But maintaining good health as we age requires being proactive, especially for people with chronic health conditions. We must seize opportunities across local communities to empower seniors with the skills they need to stay healthy.”
Communities responsive but not doing enough to support seniors
Most seniors (71 percent) feel the community they live in is responsive to their needs, but less than half (49 percent) believe their city or town is doing enough to prepare for the future needs of a growing senior population. Twenty-six percent say their city or town should invest in better public transportation, and 23 percent say their city or town should invest more in affordable health care services and housing.
Seniors give low ratings to the quality of public transportation and job opportunities in their city or town: just 16 percent and 10 percent, respectively, rate their community’s transit and employment offerings as “excellent” or “very good.”
Compared with seniors, adults ages 18-59 are less likely to believe that the community they live in is doing enough to prepare for the needs of a growing senior population (41 percent).
The changing economics of retirement and concerns of living longer
Nearly half (47 percent) of retired seniors have access to pensions, and among seniors that are not yet retired, 41 percent plan to rely on Social Security as their primary source of retirement income. In contrast, just 23 percent of adults ages 18-59 plan to rely primarily on Social Security. Forty-eight percent of adults ages 18-59 say they will live mostly off of their personal savings and investments in their senior years.
While most seniors are able to pay their monthly expenses, many express concern about the financial impact of living longer. Though two-thirds (66 percent) of seniors believe it to be very easy or somewhat easy to pay their monthly living expenses, more than half (53 percent) are somewhat to very concerned that their savings and income will not be sufficient to last them for the rest of their life.
Getting the most from more golden years
With life expectancies on the rise and the centenarian population set to boom, the survey reveals what seniors are most looking forward to in their “bonus years” – the years they may live beyond the average U.S. life expectancy of 78. More than 4 in 10 (41 percent) say seeing their children and grandchildren grow up is the most exciting prospect of living a longer life. One-fifth say spending time with friends and family will be the best part of their bonus years, and 18 percent say they are excited to have more time to do the things they enjoy.
The survey finds that seniors themselves are casting doubt on the famous adage, “The older you get, the wiser you become.” While 19 percent of adults ages 18-59 believe aging means becoming wiser, only 9 percent of those ages 60 and older agree.
Perhaps that’s because both seniors and younger adults share the belief that “there’s no such thing as getting old” because “age is a state of mind,” statements with which 28 percent of seniors and 27 percent of adults aged 18-59 agree.
For complete survey results, visit ncoa.org/UnitedStatesofAging. To watch live as the survey is presented at the n4a Annual Conference in Louisville, including an interview with featured keynote speaker Dr. Nancy Snyderman, visit USofAging.USATODAY.com on July 30 from 4-5:30 pm, EDT. Join the conversation on Twitter at #USofAging.