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SJan 27, 2012

The “Good Life” Is Also a Long Life

Scott Burns
The “Good Life” Is Also a Long Life

Sarasota, Florida. There are, very roughly, three kinds of elderly people in America. There are the people who have already run out of money. They live on their Social Security checks. Then there are the people who are likely to run out of money and worry about it. If reader mail is any indication, they worry about it more each day.

Add the two groups and you have a lot of people. According to the Social Security Administration’s “Fast Facts” book, for instance, Social Security benefits accounted for 90 percent, or more, of income for more than a third of all retirees. Social Security benefits accounted for 50 percent, or more, of income for two-thirds of all retirees.

The numbers for these two groups may be large but they are not visible here in Sarasota for a simple reason. It costs money to leave your house or apartment. And cable TV is a very low cost way to spend time. So the elderly who live cautiously aren’t the elderly you see in affluent places like Sarasota.

Here, work crews scrub down the unused yachts at Marina Jack’s every week. Here, an acre lot on the water on Casey Key, Siesta Key, or Longboat Key is likely priced over $3 million.

In Sarasota the visible elderly are the affluent ones. Here, you’ll find people who’ve come to the giddy realization that they will never run out of money. Not now. Not ever. The sense of ease is palpable. Add a generous portion of sunshine and you are awash in an ambience of raw, joyous indolence. You can feel the spending plans ramping up.

Those spending opportunities, of course, are tilted toward the capabilities of older people, which are quite different from the capabilities of the young. In the bars on Siesta Key the live entertainment is packed up and gone by 10 PM.

Tired of cooking? No problem. Eat out. There is an abundance of restaurants, but most are nearly empty by 9. At the “Sunset dinner hour,” which starts at 4 and ends at 6, a visitor must navigate carefully between the wheelchairs and walkers.

The luxury Lexus 460 sedan is big here. The high-end mall just outside Siesta Key on Tamiami Trail offers 15-minute teeth whitening sessions for people who are more than busy; they are existentially short of time. An opportunity for Botox treatment is nearby. And you’d never have to walk more than a few blocks between pedicures.


For another, more personal, view of aging in Sarasota, read “Retirement Planning, Part 2”.


Yet it all makes me wonder: How did so many people get to be so old? Will the rest of the country feel like this as the boomers continue aging?

The answer, I think, is “No.”

Why?

One reason could be called “the Michigan Effect.” (The same effect works for any state with a long and miserable winter.) Just moving from Michigan to Florida might add a few years to your life. Fewer colds, fewer falls, fewer automobile accidents on slippery roads. And lots more sunshine. Surly New Yorkers have been known to smile here. There’s a good chance people actually live longer because life is easier. There may be some significance to the fact that 8 percent of the population is 75 or older in Florida while only 6 percent is that age nationally and only 3 percent of those in Alaska are that age.

But my bet is the big reason is money.

If you can afford to live in a place like Longboat Key you’ve probably got plenty of money. Ever since the original Whitehall studies of status, income and life expectancy— the studies that found British government employees enjoyed life expectancies that grew with their income, status and authority— evidence has been growing that affluence and social status really do add years to your life. And being poor shortens it.

The most recent examination in the United States, for instance, found that the most affluent people could expect to live 4.5 years longer than the least affluent. If that doesn’t sound like much to you, consider this— the 4.5-year difference is greater than the broad gain in life expectancy for the entire population since 1980. What might be called ‘the longevity gap’ will continue to grow as the gap between the affluent and everyone else continues to widen.

So get ready: Occupy Longevity is coming soon.

Filed Under: Burns at Large