Intersections: Many people are overlooked in age studies

Black men have the highest rates for prostate cancer in the U.S. About half the minority elder population is poor or near poor. The average duration of unemployment for those age 55 and older in 2007 was 20 weeks. In 2012, that number has risen to more than 50 weeks.

Sexual abuse in California's nursing homes is underreported. The total estimated economic value of unpaid family caregivers totals $450 billion. Age can make gender-reassignment surgery nearly impossible.

These issues, and the solutions to them, are only a very small percentage of what was discussed at last week's Gerontological Society of America's 65th annual scientific meeting, where a bevy of dedicated researchers, scientists and advocates gathered at the San Diego Convention Center and took on challenges associated with aging.

Thanks to a fellowship from the MetLife Foundation — in association with GSA and New America Media — I, along with a group of accomplished journalists, had the opportunity to attend as well.

On the surface, aging and all the baggage that comes with it seem like obvious challenges. You get older, and if you're extremely lucky, you get by without any problems, health or otherwise. But for a vast majority of the elderly population, which is projected to double from their 2000 number to 72.1 million in the U.S. alone by 2030, it's not that easy.

While advances in science to keep us alive, healthier and happier for longer have come an incredibly long way, marginalized populations, either by policy or research, remain overlooked. Many surveys and research related to aging remain overwhelmingly white, and many populations remain under the radar or almost invisible to policymakers.

But as the aging population grows and diversifies, it is going to be impossible to ignore these groups when it comes to decision making or data gathering.

At the conference I learned that, for example, by 2050, there will be more Latinos than non-Hispanic whites in the elderly population. With the economic crisis still wafting, more than 80% of Latinos age 40 and older used their savings to pay for expenses in 2011. More than 61% of Latinos also borrowed money, compared with 27% of the white population in that age category.

What about elderly people limited by language or those in need of mental health services coming from cultures where the stigma attached to therapy is overwhelmingly negative? What about older women, who make up a growing segment of the workforce or aging populations in prison?

What about transgender men and women, and transgender men and women of color, many of whom have suffered from violence and abuse and have never talked about end-of-life care with anyone, much less issues when it comes to aging?

These disparities do not accurately reflect the notion of baby boomer health and influence as homogeneously as we think them to be. Our populations are changing. As we age, we need to account of those deemed to be on the fringes of society.

It's likely we'll find that they're not as far out on the edges as we once assumed.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at

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