Once a month, I order geriatric medical supplies online and have them shipped directly to my parents' apartment in a senior living community in Florida. My mom, who is in her 80s and has lost the sight in one eye, mentioned how difficult it was for her to make repeated trips to the local warehouse store. I told her I would take care of it — small payback for all those years of her running stuff I needed to wherever I was, from my first-grade classroom to my first apartment.

Frequent online browsing in the senior aisles has changed my perspective, to say the least. Suddenly, I'm getting a lot of Amazon purchasing suggestions for walkers and grab bars and personal emergency response devices.


It is alarming and not at all inspiring, this harsh jolt of reality every time I log on to make a purchase. But the other day I had an epiphany: There's no "undo" option at this point — for either my online shopping profile or my life. I could buy a sport kayak or some dangerously high heels on the Internet tomorrow, but I'm still going to get notified of sales on bed rails and wheelchairs.

I, like my parents, am aging in America, and I had better be prepared for it.

You'll want to stop reading now, because you are probably more comfortable envisioning the smiling scenarios pictured in advertisements for senior living centers; I'll admit I always was. Thirty years ago as an advertising copywriter, I wrote a print ad for a nursing home, and the headline was "The Best Years Are Always the Ones Ahead." That was my delusional 26-year-old self, envisioning a far-off time when I'd be sitting in a gazebo with a no-shed golden retriever, smiling out at a golf course as manicured as my nails.

I would not know then — could not know then — how it would feel to watch my father, shaky with Parkinson's disease, struggle to get out of a chair at a restaurant. How it would be to hear the strain in my mother's voice on the telephone each week as she details her efforts to take care of his expanding daily needs.

Yet my parents are the fortunate ones. They are living independently in a private senior facility with access to meal services, health care assistance and social engagement.

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 1.4 million Americans were living in nursing homes in 2014. And according to a recent report by the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics, older Americans will represent nearly 20 percent of the population by the year 2030.

Are we preparing in any way for this? Certainly, our rising aging population has as much an impact on our culture and economy as immigration, education, even the escalating threat of terrorism. Why was this not a major topic in this election year?

I'll tell you why. A recent report by the Janet F. Combs Institute on Growing Old indicates we just don't want to think about it, as evidenced by my actions yesterday when I ripped up an offer I got in the mail for a free tote bag from AARP. Fear makes us uncomfortable, so we take great measures to avoid it. Personally, I have not yet had the courage to ask my father how he feels when Lewy body dementia — a cruel sidekick of Parkinson's disease — makes him hallucinate. I have not yet asked my mother how she copes with watching the man she loved for 59 years rapidly disappear. Instead, I busy myself with purchasing their health care items. I ask them about the movies they have recently watched.

My brief dip into the subject of senior living led me to an important speech on the need for research in the field of aging, made by Dr. Robert N. Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging. He said: "There is hardly any point in extending life expectancy if those who live longer are frail, dependent, depressed and unhappy." He continued, "We need variations in training and techniques for overcoming the stereotypes and sense of futility about old age."

He said these things in 1978, nearly 40 years ago.

I think we need to be braver and start talking — and tweeting and posting — about the quality of our lives after the first half-century.

For instance, between ages 20 and 50, are our major daily concerns that we live safely and securely, free from falls when we venture out to a restaurant, park or shopping mall? Probably not; we occupy our leisure time planning events with family and friends or pursuing meaningful work or volunteer activities. Why would we assume these important aspects of our lives evaporate after age 65? Life may necessarily be a bit more about safety and security as we age, but that can't be all it's about.

Aging should be about continuing engagement with the people and activities that make life worth living. My parents are blazing the trail for me, with their fearless adaptation to new technologies, their busy social calendar and their grace in the face of debilitating illness. But I notice gaps in support services as well as the monumental effort it takes for them to remain positive in the face of loss — whether it's the loss of the ability to button one's own shirt or the loss of a dear friend down the hall.

Science has made it possible for us to live longer, that's for sure. And it seems to me that the $1.15 billion we spent in 2014 on anti-aging skin care products in the United States is just evidence of our pervasive cultural denial of the fact that — if we're lucky — we will inevitably join these seniors comprising nearly one-fifth of the population.


On the good news front, it appears we might look better at age 70. But we're not going to live better unless we start actively advocating for our future selves.

Janet Fricke Combs is a freelance writer living in Baltimore. Her email is janetfcombs@gmail.com.