Aging & Culture, Race & Ethnicity
As with the rest of society, the population of older adults is heterogeneous across numerous factors. Although some of these factors are irrelevant to the concerns of aging, others are not. In particular, culture, race, ethnicity, and gender have been found to have a compounding effect on the experience of old age. Two major hypotheses have been posited to describe the phenomenon of minority aging. The double jeopardy hypothesis states that the simultaneous effects of aging and one additional factor that negatively impacts the health and welfare of the individual can increase an individual's risk for problems. Others theorists, however, believe that age is a leveler and that differences based on minority status from earlier in life tend to disappear or level out with advancing years. Although the relationship between minority status and old age is complex and still not well understood, it is not necessary to understand this relationship in detail in order to do something about the problems experienced by many elders. It is important that action be taken to not only understand the impact that being a member of these classes has on the experience of old age, but also to set in place programs that will help neutralize any ill effects.
Aging & Elderly Issues
It is easy to consider all elders within a society as a homogenous group with the same risks, needs, and preferences. However, as any statistician will explain, "average" is just a point on a curve. Within the general classification of elders (however that may be defined) exist many subgroups distinguishable from each other not only by various social constructs or physiological characteristics, but by how these characteristics affect health and welfare. In particular, the factors of race, culture, gender, and ethnicity that are so important during other times of one's life do not suddenly become moot when one turns sixty-five. Instead, these factors continue to be an important influence even during old age, often compounding its deleterious effects.
Hypotheses Regarding Aging & Community Status
There are two major hypotheses that have been posited to describe the phenomenon of minority aging. The first of these is called the double jeopardy hypothesis. It has been noted in the literature that certain groups are more likely to be at risk for poverty, disease, or other negative consequences in old age. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as double jeopardy: the simultaneous effects of aging and another factor that also can negatively impact health and welfare (e.g., aging and race). When there is more than one compounding factor, similar terms may be used (e.g., quadruple jeopardy refers to the simultaneous effects of being old, the member of a minority group, female, and poor).
One of the most at risk groups is an example of quadruple jeopardy: older women who are both poor and minorities. Older women in general are significantly more at risk for living below the poverty threshold than are males of the same age. Further, minorities are more at risk than whites for living below the poverty threshold. As a result, elders who are both female and a member of a minority group are at higher risk than those who are not. Individuals falling into this category are at higher risk for health dangers. Andersen and Taylor (2002), for example, cite the fact that older black and Hispanic women tend to be more at risk for hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other serious health problems often associated with old age than are either older white males or females.
Table 1: Poverty Rates by Age, Gender, and Race, 2009
All races White Black Asian Hispanic Total 14.3 12.3 25.8 12.5 25.3 Male 13.0 11.2 23.9 12.3 23.4 Female 15.6 13.5 27.5 12.6 27.4 Age 65+ 8.9 7.5 19.5 15.8 18.3 Age 65-74 8.0 6.9 15.5 13.9 17.5 Age 75+ 10.0 8.2 24.9 18.1 19.5
Not all observers agree with the double jeopardy hypothesis, however. The second major hypothesis regarding minority aging posits that age is a leveler. According to this hypothesis, differences in status between minority and majority groups tend to decrease over time, particularly as members of the majority experience reductions in status and age stratification that bring them, on average, closer to the average socioeconomic status of members of minority groups.
Variables of Increasing Concern
The interaction of age with confounding variables such as culture, race, ethnicity, and gender is of concern not only today but will become increasingly so in the foreseeable future. It has frequently been observed that the number of people in the United States who can be classified as older adults will continue to increase for quite some time in the future. This is due in part to advances in medical science and health care that result in increased longevity. In addition, this phenomenon is also dependent on the fact that the baby boom generation has reached the age where its members are beginning to collect Social Security. According to the United States Census Bureau, by the year 2030, the number of persons in the United States aged 65 years or older is expected to double from the 1990 number to 66 million, a figure equal to 20 percent of the country's population. However, the rate of increase for various subgroups within the population of older adults is not expected to remain the same. It is expected that older adults from minority group backgrounds will increase by 500 percent by the year 2050 (Scharlach, Fuller-Thomson, & Kramer, 2002). Such projections are also reflected in reports by the US Census Bureau and the US Administration on Aging. In 2012, the US Census Bureau released projections of the US population in 2060 based on the 2010 census. In these projections, the older adult population is expected to grow from 43.1 million in 2012 to 92.0 million in 2060. According to a 2011 report by the Administration on Aging, 20 percent of people age 65 and older were minorities in 2010 and the percentage is expected to increase to 24 percent by 2010. Furthermore, the United States is expected to become a majority-minority nation in 2043 (US Census Bureau, 2012). Although whites will continue to remain the majority within the sixty-five-plus age group, it will become increasingly important to recognize and address the needs of minority group elders.
In general, the literature considers four subgroups within the classification of minority elderly: black or African American, Hispanic, American Indian or Native Alaskan, and Asian or Pacific Islander. However, as within the population of older adults in general, it should not be assumed that these subgroups are homogeneous themselves. The US Census Bureau allows people of all ethnic backgrounds to self-identify as more than one race, national origin, or sociocultural group. For example, although individuals within the Hispanic category may share a common language and some cultural traditions, they may identify themselves as any race or a combination of races. There are also significant differences between various subgroups within this category (e.g., Cuban, Central American, Latin American, Mexican, Puerto Rican) Similarly, the category of Asian/Pacific Islander includes a number of distinct cultural groups (e.g., Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Samoan). The American Indian classification includes approximately 278 federally recognized reservations, 500 tribes, and 100 unrecognized tribes. There are even differences within the African American population that reflect such factors as rural versus urban lifestyle, geographic region, and socioeconomic conditions (Scharlach, Fuller-Thomson, & Kramer, 2002). Sorting out interaction between aging and minority status is a very complex process.
Gender as a Consideration
Although the literature suggests that culture, ethnicity, and race are compounding factors that influence the effects of aging, one other "minority" factor needs to be considered in order to comprehensively look at differences between major subpopulations: gender. Although in the first few decades of life, girls outnumber boys in virtually every country in the world, by the age of thirty or thirty-five, this balance shifts until women greatly outnumber men within the population of older adults (Kinsella & Gist, 1998). The Administration on Aging reported in 2011 that there were 23.0 million older women and 17.5 million older men; older women outnumbered older men by a ratio of 132 to 100. Yet even in the early twenty-first century, women continue to have lower socioeconomic status than men. As discussed above, within the classification of older adults, women are at greater risk than men for poverty. In addition, women are more likely than men to need long-term care services, become disabled, and use home health and nursing home services (Davis, 2005). It is predicted that this phenomenon of increased longevity and morbidity will continue into the future. To leave gender out of consideration for the influence of...
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