In this Century, the New Age of Old

Dancing Twilight

February 15, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

One of the greatest human achievements of the 20th century is the gift of longer life. Americans are living 30 years longer than they did in the early 1900s, and this century is projected to be the first in which the old will outnumber the young. By the time the entire baby-boom generation reaches retirement age, doubling the number of senior citizens to 70 million, the country's demographics will mirror Florida's today.

The era of old age is here: Demographers estimate that half of all human beings who ever lived beyond the age of 65 in the history of this planet are alive right now. As life spans stretch to new lengths, more Americans are spending an entire third of their lives as senior citizens.

"This is a stage of life that has never existed in the history of the world," says Dr. Mary Tinetti, director of the program on aging at Yale University School of Medicine. "We have to figure out what it is. Tons of platitudes get thrown out -- we talk about the golden years and how terrible it is to age. But we never really talk about what it means to grow old."

Today, The Sun begins a six-part series that attempts to do just that.

For nine months, reporter Ellen Gamerman immersed herself in a community of senior citizens in Silver Spring known as Leisure World. The result is "Dancing in the Twilight," a series that closely follows three senior citizens through the ups and downs of old age, illuminating a time of life that is starting to define much of America.

Exploring the inner life of those near the end of life reveals what the statistics cannot: the quiet human drama of growing old.

In Arts & Society, page 1F

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