The Great Generational Divide: Expectations vs. Reality

Murray, KY – 30-year-old Jill Mahoney is a librarian at Murray State. She says she hopes to be as healthy as she is now when she hits her 60's to 70's. Her husband John Hendren is 25-years-old. His outlook is a bit different.

Hendren -- I don't think I'm really healthy now at all because I'm poor and eat junk food all the time but hopefully by the time I'm sixty I'll be a little more educated and be able to afford better food.

John says he fears heart conditions and high blood pressure, while Jill says she's afraid of getting Alzheimer's disease.

Mahoney -- My grandmother has a twin and they just find out she has Alzheimer's and I think that's the thing that scares me the most about getting old, because it's not just you. It really devastates your whole family.

This young couple is not alone in speculating about their future health. Kim Parker is a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC. She says findings from a study on the generation gap she co-authored tell both good and bad news about what young people expect when they grow older.

Parker -- The expectations don't really match the realities and young people really imagine that they're going to be sort of riddled with a lot of problems that the older people we talked to didn't really report having. Things like suffering from a serious illness and from memory loss when they're older. And the older folks that we talked to, very few - a quarter or less - actually had those problems.

Parker says young people also worry about other age-related ailments like loneliness, depression, limited mobility and being unable to drive. She says there is a caveat to the research, though: surveyors couldn't interview older adults living in an institutional setting who may be more likely to suffer from such problems. They made up for that by asking middle-aged adults to report on what problems their elderly parents faced.

Parker -- And even when we did that we found still young people sort of over-estimating the extent to which they'll be dealing with a lot of these problems when they're older. So that's kind of the good news and the bad news is young people anticipate having a lot of benefits that older people aren't necessarily experiencing.

Duford-Foley -- Being retired is kind of like having a part-time job.

That's Dr. Sally Duford-Foley, a retired Murray State professor over 65. She never worried when she was younger about being beset by health problems in her later years and describes herself as extremely healthy without the help of any medication. She says retirement is one of the best parts of her life.

Duford-Foley -- It's kind of nice: if you don't want to do something, you don't have to do it, but it is more relaxing. But it's busy and you'll always hear someone say, I don't know how I could do all of these things and work.'

Besides being a homemaker, Dr. Duford-Foley stays active exercising three to four days a week and participates in eleven different organizations.

Parker -- Young people think that they'll be out on the golf course and puttering in their workshop and all that kind of thing. I think what we found that older people are really living pretty ordinary lives and they don't have maybe as much leisure time as younger people think they will.

In fact, Kim Parker says people are more likely to regularly spend time on hobbies and leisurely activities when they're young than when they're old. She says just 43% of those 65 and up spend time on hobbies daily, compared to 54% of younger adults. The Pew study also finds another point of interest: one in every two older adults value family above things like financial security or leisure. Dr. Duford-Foley agrees. Jill Mahoney may one day. She says she wants to raise a family.

Mahoney 2 -- Hopefully, I'll have family. Maybe if I have kids, they'll have kids.

She has a dream of owning a home out in the country where she can grow her own vegetables in a garden and not have to worry about finances.

Mahoney -- I know a lot of people when they retire they end up having to work part-time jobs and I would rather not do that, and I'd like to travel.

Her husband John doesn't know what career he's heading towards, but he wants music to be a part of his life.

Hendren -- Listening to, researching about, somewhat creating music. I mean you usually don't think of old people doing stuff like that but hopefully I would be.

As young people today face tomorrow, their hopes will undoubtedly help them deal with the realities they'll encounter. Those among us who are a little older might hasten to add that a little hard work wouldn't hurt, either.