IT'S NO SECRET that the American population is aging. You have only to watch the nightly television news to see commercials pitching investment services to golden-agers or undergarments to folks with poor bladder control.
Or read the newspapers to observe the struggle over Medicare, prompted because more older people are using more health care services every year. Or observe the number of elderly shoppers in the Rotunda Giant between 9 and 5 any weekday.
What is this aging population like compared to, say, 10 years ago? To get an inkling, I recently attended an American Gerontological Society conference in Boston. (The AGS is a national organization of professionals who study the elderly.) There, I discovered an interesting new glossary.
If you'd like to be in tune with the times, impress others with some of the following:
* Greedy Geezers. A new label for today's elders, this implies the old are getting rich at the expense of the young. Actually, in gross economic terms, people 60 and older have a net worth of $6.8 trillion, most of which they will bequeath to their children when they die. Never before has a generation been as wealthy -- or had as much to pass on. (See Richard Lamm's article elsewhere on this page.)
* Beanpole Family. Because people are living longer and lifestyles have changed, the American family is shaping up more like a tall, thin beanpole than the familiar branching family tree, with as many as four and five generations per family but fewer people in each generation.
* Dan Callahan. Bioethicist Callahan talks of discontinuing life-support systems when people are very old and very sick and of limiting their health care. His name pops up everywhere, as insistent and discordant as a loose shutter flapping in the night. Callahan strikes fear in the hearts of those whose traditional role has been unflinching advocacy for old people.
* Intergenerational Conflict. Expect the '90s to be a decade in which the growing numbers of elderly create social pressures not unlike those created by the young in the'60s, says AGS president Vern Bengston. But, he adds, look also to the reciprocity that will develop between the young and old.
* Pig in a Python. Picture a fat pig swallowed whole and bulging its way through a snake, and you get a sense of what the "baby boomers" look like to social scientists. That bulge is what lots of folks are talking about and trying to plan for -- now.
* Sandwich Generation. Middle-aged people increasingly find themselves sandwiched between demanding children and demanding parents. For a growing number, it's a club sandwich. These people are called upon to assist with two, even three generations of elders who may live into their 90s and beyond.
And last, this overheard: "Statistics are people with their tears washed off." In 1980, there were 25.5 million Americans 65 and older, less than 10 percent of the total population. By 2000, there will be 35 million people over 65, comprising 13 percent of the population. That number shoots up sharply after the turn of the century to more than 52 million by 2020, or 17.7 percent of Americans. These older Americans are your father or my mother, your spouse, your sister, or, possibly, you.
Ghita Levine writes occasionally on issues related to aging. She lives in Baltimore.