Elderly in U.S. happy, 5-nation study shows Attitudes of older people compared in global survey

September 30, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Elderly Americans are more satisfied with life than the elderly in other developed countries. They also seem more active, more independent, generally healthy and happy with the quality of their medical care.

Those findings are part of a unique five-nation survey, released yesterday, in which older people were questioned about their attitudes toward everything from health to loneliness.

Older Americans reported being "very satisfied with life" twice as often as the elderly in Japan and 50 percent more often than the elderly in western Germany.

One part of the Americans' satisfaction is that many more of them live in their own homes rather than with children, an arrangement elderly people in general much prefer.

However, although the U.S. elderly like their medical care, they fear its cost much more than do their counterparts in the other countries surveyed -- Canada, Japan, western Germany and Britain.

More than a quarter of older Americans consider the cost of medical care a "serious threat" to their well-being, compared with fewer than 5 percent in the other four nations.

According to Karen Davis, director of the study and an expert on health economics and policy, the international comparison was commissioned to see which problems of U.S. elderly were uniquely American and which were universal.

"The results are very startling in a lot of respects," she said. "It is clear that we are doing some important things right but that we also have some areas where we need to improve."

The survey was conducted by the Louis Harris polling organization for the Commonwealth Fund, a New York foundation active in the health field.

The results were analyzed by health economics specialists from the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health as part of a five-year Commonwealth Fund study of the growing phenomenon of elderly Americans living alone.

A cross-section of people ages 65 and older were interviewed last year, with more than 900 respondents in each country answering questions about their living conditions, attitudes and preferences.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the study was not just the high level of satisfaction among the American elderly but the quite low level in Japan and, to a lesser extent, western Germany.

Nearly a quarter of Japanese elderly, who are generally thought to receive greater respect and deference than those in the West, reported that the quality of their medical care was a serious problem to them. This compared with 5 percent in America and 2 percent in Britain.

More than a quarter of Japanese elderly work, while only 11 percent have paid jobs in America and 3 percent in Germany.

Perhaps most significant of all, only 10 percent of Japanese elderly report living alone, compared with 31 percent in the United States and 40 percent in Canada.

"Many of us have an image that it is wonderful for family to take in their elderly parents and relatives," said Ms. Davis. "But the reality often means less independence for the elderly person -- doing things on other people's schedules and in ways to accommodate others.

"In the United States two or three decades ago, older folks lived with families a lot," she said. "But as they got a better standard of living, they got more independence and enjoyed it . . . A survey showed that of American elderly living alone, only 1 of 1,000 said they would prefer to live with their kids."

The Commonwealth Fund survey showed that elderly people in all five countries, but especially in the United States and Britain, do not want to move in with their children or into nursing homes, even if they become severely disabled.

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