Living End: Burden, Baby Boomer, Burden

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I am what you could call a cusp baby born on the early edge of the baby boomer years. By the time early boomers were sprung from high school and took to the streets, I had finished college and was well into a job that had me watching boomers clog the freeways in protest from an office overlooking I-5 in Seattle.

The boomer bulge of lifestyle revolutionaries is now emptying out into years of retirement. Any one born during the years 1946-1964 and still living are considered baby boomers, referring to the population boom that began at the end of World War II and lasted well into the sixties.

Since 2011, boomers begun turning 65 and will be arriving in their sixties over the next 17 years, a reality that is causing considerable hand wringing in the other Washington. The generation that brought us the end to the Vietnam War, race riots, free love, drug love, living together without marriage, mothers working, acquisition culture and a technology revolution, to name but a few, is being viewed as a burden!

The political angst and resulting stand-off is centering on the very real threats to our economy of uncontrollable health care costs. Many are alarmed over what could become a spectacular national deficit but more are alarmed about their own fate as they age, the time they will most likely need medical care. Paying for treatment for serious illness is very costly and threatens loss of retirement and in some cases bankruptcy unless one has very good health care coverage.

Proposed programs to relieve the Medicare burden range from Medicare for all to voucher programs that reduce access to care. In part because I am a health care professional and in other part because I am a human being, I advocate for measures to lower government spending by lowering the cost of care and opening access to needed care, including preventive care, for everyone. I simply do not understand those that would deny needed care to anyone and especially old people.

Proponents of programs that limit access do not seem to understand that people will die sooner and likely with debilitating chronic disease. Programs proposed that are reliant on a market system forget that markets have no incentive to maintain the health of the individuals and families in this country. Both these approaches promise profits for business and considerable anxiety for consumers.

As long as one must turn 65, most boomers breathe a sigh of relief to finally get on Medicare and escape at least their financial devastation if not the country’s. Even those that loudly protest against government anything say in the same protest “Leave my Medicare alone.”

I am thinking that boomers do not like thinking of themselves as a burden. They are after all the generational leaders of change. I also suspect that many see Medicare as an earned rather than an unearned entitlement. So what should a 100-percent product of the baby boomer generation do? Protest to keep Medicare?

Perhaps, although it does seem a tad narcissistic to fight for health care access only for oneself. My thought is that boomers, along with those of us who precede them, insist that our elected officials use the compelling data from the Institute of Medicine and the Congressional Budget office to develop policy that makes a healthy nation a priority at a cost the country can afford.

Until that time, the best solution for baby boomers is “Take Care of Yourself.” Work hard to not need health care by practicing prevention of serious or chronic disease. Sometimes fate or our genetics doesn’t let us live without chronic disease. Some of us will get lung cancer even though we never smoked.

Most of the time we can improve our odds of preventing chronic disease, living into old age and dying in our sleep at the end of what we thought was a good life. Unfortunately not all boomers are catching on.

A recent study (The State of U.S. Health, 1990-2010: Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors July 2013) published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported, “In a marked shift, non-fatal disease and disability accounted for almost half of all health burden in the U.S. in 2010. [There’s that word again.] Despite progress in extending lifespans, population health in the U.S. has not kept pace with advances in other wealthy countries.”

The report goes on to list the related causes at the top of which are poor lifestyle choices such as too much food, too much of the wrong food, too little exercise, smoking (still!) and too much alcohol.

Then this from the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 4, 2013, based on a different but related study also published in JAMA: “Only 13.2% of boomers [around 54 years old] rated their own health as “excellent,” compared with 32% of those in the older group answering the same questions in 1988 and 1994 [around 54 years old at the time]. Boomers were more likely to have high blood pressure (43% vs. 36.4%), high cholesterol (73.5% vs. 33.8%) and diabetes (15.5% vs. 12%). A full 38.7% of boomers surveyed were obese, compared with 29.4% of their elders. They also had a higher rate of cancer (10.6% vs. 9.5%) but the difference wasn’t big enough to be statistically significant.”

“Despite their longer life expectancy over previous generations, U.S. baby boomers have higher rates of chronic disease, more disability and lower self-rated health than members of the previous generation at the same age,” the authors concluded.

What’s remarkable about this study is that the age of participants was 54 or 10-11 years before being eligible for Medicare. We can expect those already impressive percentages to increase if the lifestyle habits that maintain it don’t change. Boomers are living longer but not well. Boomers, you are not taking care of yourself. Never mind the country, you are becoming a burden to yourself, a burden none of you want.

Not being a boomer, I may have this wrong but I think boomers had a sense that anything was possible, were greater risk takers and lived more in the moment than say me, whose primary concern was long-term security. In the case of restoring health, they are right — anything is possible.
It’s never too late — after all you are the generation of change. Some boomers already have arrived. Many boomers have seen the future of limited coverage and Medicare doctors and already have made changes. Who brought us yoga, running, Tai Chai, fitness centers and home exercise equipment? Who was the first to count calories and read food labels?

Boomers can spread healthy paths to quality lives just like they spread antiwar and free love movements. Anyone who embarks on correcting old dangerous habits and become healthy knows it’s hard to let go of those comforting habits and adopt new habits that don’t seem as comforting like running on a treadmill. Better to try than not, it feels better and is better for the country.

Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at
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