Public Opinion About Life and Death - Getting Older

nursing live homes survey

Living to Age One Hundred

National surveys of the adult population by the Alliance for Aging Research (AAR) have found that Americans would generally like to live longer. In 2001 six in ten Americans (63%) said they would like to live to be one hundred years old. Men (68%) and those ages eighteen to thirty-six (69%) were more likely to want to live to be one hundred years old. These findings are similar to AAR studies from 1991 and 1996.

A more recent poll yielded different results. The October 2005 ABC News/USA Today poll "Most Wish for a Long Life—Despite Broad Aging Concerns" revealed that only 20% of a random national sample of one thousand adults wanted to live to be one hundred years or older. Twenty-three percent stated that they would like to live into their nineties, and 29% into their eighties.

Although a majority of Americans polled by the AAR said they would like to live to be one hundred years old, not all expect to get their wish. Nonetheless, 90% of people completing an online survey, and 60% of those who responded by telephone to a 2001 survey by the AAR, expected to live to be at least eighty years old. More than half (62%) of those surveyed online said they expected to live to be at least ninety years old. Earlier AAR surveys, conducted in 1991, 1992, and 1996, also showed that more than half of the respondents (56%, 58%, and 51%, respectively) thought they would live to be at least eighty years old.

Those surveyed by the ABC News/USA Today poll were asked how likely they thought it was that they would live to be one hundred years old and still have a good quality of life. Thirty-five percent thought it very or somewhat likely, while 64% thought it somewhat or very unlikely. One percent had no opinion.

Concerns about Aging

The aging of the baby boomers (the generation born between 1946 and 1964) and the growing number of people living longer have focused much attention on concerns that come with aging. The 2001 AAR survey mentioned in the previous section found that while Americans want to live longer, more than half of respondents to the online survey were concerned about losing their health (61%) and living in a nursing home (51%) in old age. Becoming a financial burden to their children (45%) and remaining attractive (46%) concerned less than half of those surveyed online. The 2005 ABC News/USA Today poll mentioned in the previous section asked similar questions and found that respondents were most concerned about losing their health (73%). More than half were also worried about losing their mental abilities (69%) and losing their ability to care for themselves (70%). The respondents were also worried about being a burden to their families (54%) and living in a nursing home (52%).

Nursing Homes Get Mixed Reviews

During 2001 the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a national survey about nursing homes. Among other questions, participants were asked about their willingness to move into a nursing home.

Of the 1,309 adults surveyed, slightly less than half (47%) said they would not like, but would accept, moving into a nursing home if they could not care for themselves at home, while 43% felt that moving into a nursing home would be totally unacceptable. Only 10% of the survey respondents felt they would accept it as the best thing for themselves. A majority felt that nursing homes are understaffed, have staff that are often neglectful or abusive of residents, and are lonely. Almost half (45%) felt that nursing homes make most people who move into them worse off than prior to the move. Further, 86% of respondents believed that "most people who stay in a nursing home never go home."

In June 2005 the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation conducted another national survey that included questions about nursing homes (May/June 2005 Health Poll Report Survey). When asked if they thought "that the quality of nursing homes in this country has gotten better, gotten worse, or stayed about the same," only 15% thought they had gotten better. Twenty-four percent thought nursing homes had gotten worse, while 45% felt that they had stayed about the same. Sixteen percent did not answer. Respondents still felt that nursing homes are understaffed (74%), but 68% believed that nursing homes "have staff who are concerned about the well-being of their patients." On the other hand, 60% thought that "the staff at nursing homes are often poorly trained."

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