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THE SPECIAL YEARS : 50 AND BEYOND: THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE : Busy, Active, Happy : Not Only Are People Living Longer, but a New Times Poll Finds That Most Seniors Feel That They Are Also Living Better

May 04, 1989|ANNE C. ROARK | Roark is a Times staff writer.

No one expects retirement to be particularly pleasant. The myth in America is that retirees are old folks who are bored (and boring). They are lonely and addled; they have little to talk about, except their failing health, and nothing to do, except impose on the younger generation. In the American view of things, becoming a senior citizen practically means giving up one's life, to say nothing of one's status in the world.

No one is more keenly aware of how bleak old age can be than are middle-aged people who are about to round the corner into senior status. And no one could be more wrong.

Once they have actually made the leap into retirement, the vast majority of Americans find the leisure years aren't so bad after all, according to a new Los Angeles Times Poll. In fact, the majority of senior citizens are busy, active in sports and quite happy, thank you, that they don't have to live with their children. In other words, life in the senior years is not all that much different than it was in the middle years--and may be even a little better.

As one retired man put it not long ago: "There is so much to do now, I wonder how in the world I ever had time to work."

The popular image of the elderly being dumped into nursing homes, living in despair and desolution simply is not the case, according to the portrait older people draw of themselves.

The Times Poll, directed by I.A. Lewis, interviewed a cross-section sample of 2,269 American adults of all ages, plus an additional 781 people over the age of 50. The "oversample" of the middle-aged and elderly was added to provide greater statistical precision to their opinions. The margin of error for the survey was 3 percentage points in either direction.

By all accounts, the poll found, Americans are learning to age gracefully. And that is good news since today's average 50-year-old man can now expect to live another 29 or 30 years and the average 50-year-old woman another 32 or so years, which is certainly longer than their grandparents or even parents lived. Most Americans born around the turn of the century did not make it much past the age of 40 or 50, according to Census Bureau averages. By the middle of the next century, the average life expectancy will be into the 90s, by some estimates.

Not only is life getting longer for most people, but it is also getting better, says James M. Thompson, manager of consumer affairs for the American Assn. of Retired Persons.

Time was when people assumed that being old meant living in loneliness, on a "fixed income" or in outright poverty. Today, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the 62 million Americans who are aged 50 and over not only have plenty of energy to expend but that they also, at least as a group, have considerable money to spend as well.

According to estimates by the AARP and other groups, the over-50 population has a combined income of $800 billion, it controls half the discretionary income in the United States and three-quarters of the financial assets, which is why it is becoming known to advertisers as the new "Golden Market," Thompson says.

What do people over the age of 50 do with all their money and free time?

Nearly two-thirds of middle-aged Americans, of course, continue to work. But by the time, they reach 65, the overwhelming majority, 84%, have left the work force, according to the Times Poll.

Many people acknowledge that they are not thrilled with the prospect of retiring. More than half of the people of all ages say that when people stop working, they lose their identity. And more than 40% believe retirement brings on early death.

Despite the fears of what retirement might bring, the overwhelming majority of people over 50 want to live on their own, rather than in planned retirement communities or with their children.

But the middle-aged and elderly do spend time with their children. In fact, three out of four people over the age of 50 report having just about the right amount of contact with their children, thus "dispelling the notion that most old people are abandoned and lonely," Lewis said.

Even if they are widowed, the majority of middle-aged and elderly people are content to live on their own, rather than remarry. Their reasons: they are set in their ways and, anyway, there aren't so many great partners to choose from.

Whether they are living on their own or with others, a remarkable number of people over the age of 50 spend at least some portion of their leisure hours participating in sports and other physical activities. When asked what their favorite form of recreation was, 58% of people between the ages of 50 and 64 name fishing, walking, golf, swimming, tennis and other physical activities.

Those who are over 65 admit to slowing down a bit--but not much. Just under half, 47%, of those 65 and over say they also prefer physical activity to more passive forms of recreation, such as travel or sewing or reading.

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