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Western Seniors May Be U.S.’ Most Optimistic

Times Staff Writer

Gray hair doesn’t necessarily mean a gray outlook on life, particularly if you live in the West, a national survey of two generations has found.

Nationally, 91% of those 65 and older who were polled were found to be completely or partially satisfied with their current standard of living. And a majority of those in the West “almost never worry” about their finances.

“Seniors may be the most optimistic age group in American society,” Dr. John C. Pollock said by phone from New Jersey. He is president of New World Decisions Inc., which conducted the survey for Los Angeles-based Transamerica Life Cos.

Among the findings of the survey, which put a magnifying glass on seniors and those ages 45-54:

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* 85% of the middle generation were satisfied with their standard of living.

* 40% of middles and 59% of seniors in the West said they “almost never worry,” about their finances, compared with 18% and 40% respectively for what appears to be the most pessimistic region of the nation, the Midwest.

* Westerners were more likely to have evaluated their financial resources before retirement: 71% of middles and 66% of seniors, compared with only 54% of middles in the South and 46% of the seniors in the Northeast.

* Again, the West won out on the issue of independence: only 12% of middles and 23% of seniors in the West indicated that living near a child is “extremely important.” This compared with 23% of middles in the Midwest and 26% of seniors in the South.

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Helen Dennis, project director with the USC Andrus Gerontology Center and an adviser to the Transamerica survey, said she believed the findings reflect that “people in the West are more future oriented. There is still that remnant of the frontier spirit, the feeling that anything is possible--regardless of age.”

But she noted the characteristic independence of mature Westerners also may have its downside: “As we age, we may become frail and ill and dependent. And then the distance from our families--usually the primary support for body and soul--won’t be a plus.”

The national survey sampled 500 randomly selected households in each of the two groups. Pollock said it was the first that dealt exclusively with these two generations.

One reason it came about: David R. Carpenter, Transamerica chairman and usually included among Los Angeles’ most influential people, is active in groups on aging and thought there was a lack of statistical information for future public policy planning.

He said the survey showed that “There was more of a feeling of self-reliance on the part of both generations than I had anticipated. The people said, ‘Hey, we want to take care of ourselves.’ “Aging will be by far our largest social issue in the next 50 years,” he added. “We need a national policy on it. We have some real balancing to do with our resources.”

As Carpenter has noted: “In about 25 years the baby boom will become the senior boom as the first of the 76 million baby boomers will reach 65. By the middle of the next century, 25% of our population will be senior citizens--more than double today’s percentage.”

Similarity of Thinking

Pollock said he “was struck also by the similarities in the thinking of the two age groups. The middles are much more like their elders than they are, say, their younger siblings. More cautious, for one thing, in their spending and saving habits.”

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One reason, Pollock said, is this group grew up before television and spent a lot of time listening to their parents talk about the Depression: “I am of that middle generation, and I notice that my younger siblings take affluence for granted. Their generation’s expectations are such that they may be setting themselves up for disappointment. The middle generation is still an appreciative generation.”

Regarding the lesser importance that older Westerners attach to living near their children, Pollock observed: “Westerners are more likely to have made a personal choice to live there. In the other three regions, there is a strong possibility the residents simply grew up there. If you live in a place because of a conscious choice, you had the courage to uproot, and you are far more likely to be of an independent nature and confident about the future.”

Westerners, he said, seem more willing to opt for geographical advantages, climate and life styles than for family ties.

He noted his other studies have shown that Westerners write more letters than residents in other regions, “and they tend to use the phone more.”

Contrary to Expectations

Pollock said the contented, optimistic outlook of older Americans disclosed by the survey was contrary to what might have been expected. “If any country idolizes youth, it is the United States. Therefore, you might expect older people here to feel alienated from the mainstream. Instead, we found they have a distinct and robust sense of legitimate place. Which means we may be maturing as a society.”

The survey did uncover some disquieting ignorances: 24% of middles and 28% of seniors said they “don’t know” how much it costs to stay in a nursing home for a year. Of those who know, “almost half are nowhere close to the national average of $22,000 per year,” the report said.

The two generations--68% of middles and 58% of seniors--agree strongly or somewhat that “government will not have adequate resources to meet the needs of its retired citizens in the year 2000.”

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While generally optimistic, those surveyed by Transamerica were worried about inflation: Despite years of a stable Consumer Price Index, 78% of middles and 73% of seniors agreed with the statement that “inflation will eat away a large portion of my savings.”

Further, 71% of middles and 68% of seniors agreed that “health care costs will take away a great portion of my assets.”


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