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Historically, the elderly in our society have been viewed as a sympathetic and vulnerable group.

Rates of poverty were high for those who could no longer participate in the paid labor force, often because of poor health or frailty. They were considered the "deserving poor" and enjoyed the benefits of a wide array of protective legislation, such as Medicare.That notion is changing somewhat, says Marilyn Moon, senior research associate with The Urban Institute, a national policy/-research/advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. (Moon was a keynote speaker at meetings of the American Council of Consumer Interests held recently in New Orleans).

Today, she says, the elderly, who have enjoyed a significant increase in economic well-being, are just as likely to be considered "greedy geezers."

Neither stereotype is fair or accurate, she says. However, as an increasing percentage of our population becomes elderly, there are important questions and issues that will need to be dealt with.

Should the elderly be given any special treatment in the marketplace? "A reasonable case can certainly be made that the elderly represent a critical consumer group," says Moon. Here are some areas that she singles out for consideration:

FINANCES: Despite the growth in average incomes for older Americans, the financial picture is not all rosy. More than three million persons over 65 remain below the poverty level - the highest rate of poverty among all adult Americans.

Older persons often face critical decisions regarding their finances. Investment of savings to supplement retirement income can make the difference between living well and just getting by. Retirement benefits that become available in a lump-sum payment require special attention.

The death of a spouse may create a major disruption in the financial affairs of the survivor.

And the consequences of making poor decisions may leave older persons with few options. Because they are usually out of the labor force, they cannot make up for mistakes by "working harder."

HEALTH: Older Americans use nearly three times more health care services than any other age group. And in doing so, they must generally deal with a public program, Medicare, and one or more private supplemental insurance plans or Medicaid. Medigap policies - private plans to supplement Medicare - are sold in a confusing array. "Older consumers are likely to be encouraged to overinsure," says Moon.

In addition, the elderly are the largest per capita consumers of prescription drugs.

VULNERABILITY: Poor health in later years can also have an impact on meeting other needs, says Moon. "Frailty associated with chronic conditions or the aging process creates special needs in housing and everyday activities in the marketplace."

This means that older persons may rely more on services to meet their needs - hiring people to do such things as remodel their homes or perform everyday chores.

Cognitive problems - whether mild or full cases of dementia - also create special consumer needs.

So, do these special needs require segregated treatment? That may be the question of the '90s, says Moon. And it raises all kinds of difficult sub-questions. Such as: In those areas where special protections may be needed for older persons, what is the appropriate age cutoff? Our traditional use of age 65 has been an arbitrary standard, but is it appropriate in view of economic and health improvements? And who decides which issues need an age distinction?

Bunk-bed safety is not an issue of great interest to most people over 65, but standards for sales of hearing aids are. So, in those cases, the decision might be easy. What about such issues as sleepwear flammability and food standards?

Studies have shown that the two most vulnerable groups to apparel fires are the very young and the very old. Sleepwear for children is subject to flammability standards, but no such protections exist for older persons. One reason for this is that it is difficult to identify sleepwear that would be used by persons over the age of 65 or 70, so any standards would have to apply to all adult sleepwear. But what if this affects the quality or cost of the sleepwear for younger adult consumers?

A similar dilemma arises with food standards. "Often our taste buds alert us to problems in foods," says Moon. "If it tastes or smells bad, we are likely to avoid the food. Older persons, on the other hand, are less likely to benefit from that built-in protection. They may be more susceptible to tainted food - and then may suffer more from the ill effects if they are frail."

Should we have separate standards for seniors, or should we think about setting standards that take such vulnerabilities into account? At what cost? Because it is not feasible to have a supermarket section labeled "for seniors only," should less susceptible consumers pay more for higher standards?

None of these questions is easy, says Moon. But they are questions society must deal with as it adjusts in coming years to "the graying" of America.


(Additional information)

A few facts and figures

The 60-plus population is a diverse group, with varying needs and interests. Here are some interesting facts and figures:

-Not long ago, more than half our population was under age 16, and few could expect to live beyond 60. Today, one American in four is 50 or older, and 70 percent of all Americans will reach 65.

-The over-55 age group is growing at twice the rate of the general population.

-By the year 2000, persons 65-plus are expected to represent 13 percent of the population, and this percentage may climb to 21.2 percent by 2030.

-Women reaching age 65 have an average life expectancy of an additional 18.6 years; men have an additional life expectancy of 14.8 years.

-The 60-74 age group, now numbering 17 million, is more youthful and healthier than predecessor generations, with the sharpest increase in income of any age group.

-The 75-84 age group, at 9 million, spends the most on health care - but also contributes the highest percentage of income to charity of any group.

-The 85-plus age group is the most rapidly expanding and is projected to increase 51 percent by the year 2000. With incomes far below other segments, most receive some support from their children.

-85 percent of those 55 and older own their own homes, the majority free and clear.

-Older men are twice as likely to be married as older women - 77 percent of men and 40 percent of women are married.

-About 30 percent of all non-institutionalized older persons live alone; 67 percent live in a family setting.

-One study found that four out of every five older persons had living children. Of these, two-thirds lived within 30 minutes of a child. Six out of 10 had weekly visits with children, and three-fourths talked on the phone at least weekly with children.

-In 1986 49 percent of persons 65 and older lived in eight states. California, New York and Florida had more than 2 million each; Pennsylvania, Texas, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan each had more than 1 million.

-In 11 states (Utah is one) the 65-plus population increased by 20 percent or more between 1980 and 1986. (In Utah, the increase was 22 percent).

-The major source of income for older families in 1986 was Social Security (35 percent), followed by asset income (25 percent), earnings (23 percent) public and private pensions (14 percent).

-Most older persons have at least one chronic health condition, and many have multiple conditions. The most frequently occurring conditions are arthritis, hypertinsion, hearing impairments, heart disease, orthopedic impairments and sinusitis, cataracts, diabetes and visual impairments.