Formerly IGSW News | VOLUME 21 | SPRING 2014

Issues and Views

In my opinion

Boomers Embody 'Aging with Disabilities'

By W. Andrew Achenbaum

The Affordable Care Act will be Obama's major accomplishment, yet another, related initiative also merits acclaim. The Administration for Community Living (ACL), created in 2012, pools resources for older Americans and people with disabilities to better integrate housing and educational initiatives with healthcare access. The joint effort makes sense for both populations. Why, then, is there discontent among many longtime aging advocates and older adults themselves when talking about "aging with disabilities"?

Images of aging. We all know that disabilities mount with advancing years, although they are present throughout the life course. Disabilities do not always impair elders' ability to enjoy themselves. Good habits and improved medical treatments ward off—and sometimes prevent—incapacity. But the specter of disabilities has long colored images of aging.

Researchers and clinicians a century ago debated whether old age was a pathological state or a normal stage of life. Elie Metchnikoff, the Nobel Laureate who coined the term gerontology, claimed in 1903 that old age "is an infectious chronic disease which is manifested by a degeneration, or an enfeebling of the noble elements." In 1914, the American geriatrician I. L. Nascher distinguished "senility" from "senile pathology," hypothesizing that "the aged individual is in fact an entirely different individual from the one who was formed from the ancestors of the late cells."

Perceptions of "debilitating decline" nonetheless overshadow hopes for "resilience" in old age. Rampant ageism, combined with denials of death, perpetuates negativity; individuals fear a Fourth Age overwhelmed by pain, suffering, and obsolescence. We risk marginalizing elders by weighing down its potentials with disabilities.

Liberation? Modern science may liberate us from such deleterious historical associations. Thanks to bio-medical-psychological-social-spiritual inventions and interventions, today's elders with disabilities have more options. Prosthetics enable people to run long distances. Pharmacology can ease depression and other chronic aches and pains. Technological assistance in homes and cars make mobility safer and easier.

What's more, people aging with disabilities are consumers who represent a $200 billion market. Twelve-step programs offer assistance and encouragement. And, for nearly a quarter-century, the Americans with Disabilities Act has spurred a host of public and private initiatives that give physical and professional access to services. Not least, the disability rights movement has brought us new images of people with disabilities—mostly younger—demonstrating that they can participate greatly in many realms of life. Times are changing.

Not home free. Smoking cessation, diet consciousness, and regular exercise have benefited Boomers, but they are not home free. Obesity and substance abuse loom as threats to their healthful longevity. Boomers, in fact, may become the first generation in history to enter old age less healthy than their parents.

A redefinition. Still, I see examples every day of men and women at my local Y who are redefining "aging with disabilities." Steve and Frank, bald, stocky guys in their 60s, complain about knee pain after they have played two games of basketball. Louisa, a retired doctor, had a massive heart attack a few months ago. Louisa needs a device to get her in the pool, then she outpaces me after the first lap. These Boomers probably would have been dead a few decades ago. Now they smile and sweat.

To harvest the fruits of population aging, we need to address and accommodate the magnitude and varieties of disabilities over the life course. Just as younger people with disabilities are increasingly defying stereotypes, Boomers reaching Golden Pond have opportunities to set the pace for those who follow.

W. Andrew Achenbaum is professor of history and social work and Gerson and Sabina David Professor in Global Aging, University of Houston.

Photo of W. Andrew Achenbaum courtesy University of Houston

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Copyright © 2014 Trustees of Boston University. All rights reserved. This article may not be duplicated or distributed in any form without written permission from the publisher: Center for Aging & Disability Education & Research, Boston University School of Social Work, 264 Bay State Road, Boston, MA 02215, U.S.A.; e-mail: