Last week a blogger friend died unexpectedly in her sleep. Rena McDaniel was 55. I didn’t know her well. But I’ve been following her online since I began blogging over 12 years ago. Her first blog posts focused on caregiving her mother with Alzheimer’s. Then when her mother passed on five or so years later, she switched to writing about blogging itself—how to do it, best programs, and even served to help others with repairs. In other words, Rena was someone who spent her life helping others. While I never had need of her services, her presence in my blogging world was always there. And now it’s not. I’m only guessing, but from my perspective I don’t think Rena ever reached her “golden years.” That got me wondering about how many of us ever really do? What does “golden years” even mean? And like so many thoughts I have these days—maybe it is time to stop waiting for some time or some “place” in the future—and instead live life right now.
I find it fascinating that the term “Golden Years” was first invented as an advertising slogan. Marketers for the first Sun City in Arizona come up with the phrase to attract older people to a new lifestyle community for “active adults.” It was so successful that on opening weekend in 1960 thousands of cars lined up outside the gate allowing 100,000 visitors to tour the five models. The developer, Del Webb, had single-handedly convinced retirees that they didn’t have to “retire” from life when they retired. They could instead live a fun and active retirement surrounded with people who were just like them. In the first year alone they sold 2,000 homes.
I don’t know about you, but as a baby boomer I’ve grown up with the term “golden years” as part of my world. To me the word meant that after a person worked hard and got older, they would finally “arrive” at their golden years. That meant they could retire and just enjoy a life of leisure. And frankly, the majority of the people I know in Southern California seem to live that way. But are they? Can everyone expect to arrive at their “golden years” once they hit age 65? Unfortunately, Rena didn’t. And I can’t help wondering whether the terms are either a fairy tale or an ongoing marketing tool from those who stand to profit from it by continually waving it front of a certain demographic?
A book written in 2019 by Professor Deborah Carr titled Golden Years? Social Inequality in Later Life asks that question and many others. She points out (and backs it up with lots of research) that while some people might experience their elder years as golden, there is a sharp difference among older people based on race and ethnicity, social class, and gender. And those inequalities are stark and expected to widen in the decades to come. Nowhere is this more evident than the 40 percent of U.S. citizens who rely exclusively on Social Security to live*. And while that actual percentage can be debated, over 10% of those age 65 live below the poverty rate. What no one debates is that more and more people are relying on scarce resources to make ends meet. I doubt many of those are over-joyed with reaching their “golden years.”
Another big issue that Carr highlights in her books is the rather dramatic inequalities regarding the health of elders. While I personally believe that I have a great deal of influence on how I age and how healthy I remain, some of us have a definite advantage over many older people. Carr demonstrates how having limited education when young, coupled with lack of access to decent healthcare, sets up a particular life course of a person for the remainder of their life. Sure, I grew up in a blue-collar family that wasn’t big on education—but being white and living in a somewhat middle-class community, I was largely unaware of the many advantages that I had over so many other ethic and racial communities with sub-standard education and no medical access. Plus like most women, I am aware of the many disadvantages that just being a woman provided me. For other women of other races and ethnicities, along with those of the LGBTQ communities, the disadvantages add up. From birth to midlife to death, Carr points out the large number of inequities linked to such major causes as heart disease and stroke and so many other serious health conditions—not to mention COVID itself.
With so many of us disadvantaged either by our sex (women over 65 earn an average of $21, 815 vs. men over 65 at $36,921 **) or by our race or sexual orientation plus our social position, it is no wonder that our quality of life can be vastly different when we hope to retire. Or let’s face it, it is possible that certain groups will never be able to retire unless forced to due to their health. That’s hardly a “golden” perspective to have to face.
And please don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining about the advantages that I am now experiencing in my life. But I also don’t want to stick my head in the sand and pretend that others have the exact same experience as I do. I knew from her blog posts that Rena was having health issues but I also assumed (wrongly) that she was relatively young and it was just an experience she was facing. And that points out another issue that creates the illusion that we are all facing advancing age the same—and that issue is social media. Even though I think we all know in the back in our minds that what shows up in our Facebook feed is only a fraction of our true selves, it is easy to forget that and assume everyone is having a wonderful life.
I believe strongly that you and I can influence our lives by doing what we can to stay physically healthy. (Eating right, exercising and sleeping well). We also have a great deal of influence over our financial health by planning ahead and making intelligent and carefully considered choices (consider Rightsizing). In addition, our mental and emotional health can be strongly influenced by continual learning, intentions and positive mindset (reading blog posts like SMART Living 365!). But even with that said, I am also sensitive to the fact that things happen. Life happens. We are not in control of the Universe. On the other hand, rather than just throwing up my hands and saying, “que sera, sera,” I instead want to be as resilient as I am able, adaptable and open-hearted to experiencing the best I can manage in the years ahead.
My heart goes out to Rena and those close to her and trust they find peace in the days ahead. And while I will miss her presence online, I prefer to use her passing as a reminder that none of us are getting out alive. The SMART choice (as always) is to consider that perhaps the real golden years are the ability to constantly tell those you love that you love them and live each day as if it is your last.