We all are used to saying – and hearing – that we as a society have great respect for our older citizens. After all, we’ve set up great programs to help those in need as they age. Medicare is terrific, providing insurance for those who need health care (and who doesn’t). Social Security has helped millions and millions of Americans sustain themselves after their work years were no longer possible, or as a supplement to savings. Sure, there are problems with both of those programs. But this blog is not about those two programs, per se. It’s about looking into the future and deciding whether we want to put our money where our mouths are.

The life expectancy for men is about 78 years and for women about 80. But according to the Society of Actuaries Retirement Participant 2000 tables, a 65-year old man has a 20% chance of living to 90 and a 65-year old woman a 32% chance of living that long. Furthermore, a married man and woman have almost a 20% chance that one of them will live to be 95. Think about the implications of that. With the average social security benefit being in the neighborhood of $1230/month, can our society afford those payments, particularly as we see health care costs rise? And what about the need many of those longer-living folks have for maintenance care, not medical or skilled care, just the activities of daily living. You know: eating, bathing, dressing, toileting, transferring, etc. How can we possibly manage?

Fifty years ago or so, there were about 15 or 16 people working for every retiree. More recently, in 2005, that number dropped to just over 3, including all of the immigrants. And the latest data show that in the next 20 years that number could drop to just 2 workers for every retiree! Two! And I’m not even mentioning how much longer each retiree will live or the health care they will require.

In Japan, these numbers are so much more alarming but show us what our future might look like. In Japan they anticipate that in 20 years there will be just 1 worker for each retiree, and their life expectancy is even higher than ours in the US. What they’ve done over the last 10 years or so is increase their revenue by raising the premium rates for employee and national pension programs like ours. They certainly put their money where their values are. It’s probably not enough but they seem to be confronting the problems.

But what about here? Are we willing to see our parents (or our own) benefits drop in relation to our needs? Will you be able to sustain yourself until you’re in your 90’s? We keep talking about our unwillingness to pass along our debt to our children. Yet we don’t seem to be willing to pay more to do so. We keep saying that we need to cut, cut, and cut some more. Sure, let’s cut where we can. But why is it that we are so unwilling to contribute more to social security? We keep saying that it’s OUR money. Nope, it’s now ours, any more so than the money we spend to defend our nation. The money we contribute toward Medicare and Social Security is money to help our parents and grandparents. We’ve got to stop talking as if the money we pay is ours and start allowing the rate and the maximum amount of our annual contribution to rise. It’s the only hope we have to sustain the future.

We all know of senior citizens who play ball, ski, run marathons, and work out religiously well into their 80’s. We tell them they don’t “act their age.” But of course, they do. They are 70 or 80 years of age but have managed to stay very active and are in great shape. They laugh – disdainfully actually – when you tell them “they don’t look 80.” That’s because they don’t have any sense of chronology. Through good genes, some luck, a lot of hard work, and great motivation they do what they love. Similarly, many of these people often continue to work in their chosen field well past what anyone would call a retirement age.

At the same time, there are many others who, for whatever reason, cannot play sports or do the same kinds of activity even if they wanted to do so. They may have health problems, injuries, or other limitations. They may be equally motivated and live a normal life despite these limitations. They also just may not enjoy physical exercise or exertion and prefer a more sedate life. Some may be disabled and have been for some time so they’ve chosen a different path for themselves, one that allows them to do the things they enjoy without physical restraints.

So when we are speaking with our aging parents one of the key factors to consider is the degree to which they want to and can be active. Then you can help them reach that level. Come to think of it, when we're thinking ourselves about how we plan to live the rest of our lives, this might be a pretty good way to view it.