Moving America Forward

Getting Real About Golden Years

October 16, 2017
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Getting Real About Golden Years
One of New York’s ‘Most Powerful Women’ critiques longevity in America.

Getting old isn’t for the faint of heart. Healthcare is expensive. Extra services are needed. There’s pressure on your adult children to take care of you. (And from their perspective, they’ve got to deal with the mental anguish of watching you try to cope!)

Yes, it’s joyous to lead a long, healthy life, but the operative word is “healthy.” If you’re lingering, not living, I don’t see an upside.

Making it to 100 — or beyond — only makes sense, to me, if you have a high quality of life. If you’re confined to a wheelchair, if someone has to clean you, bathe you and dress you, and if you’re not even aware of your surroundings, living to such a ripe old age doesn’t feel like much of a victory. To enjoy longevity, it’s crucial that we can still give back to others, feel well enough to participate in activities, and enjoy our family and friends.

When my father was 69, he had a stroke. A medevac helicopter rushed him to the hospital, where doctors told us there was a possibility that he’d recover. As a family, we decided to put in a feeding tube.

Had I understood the magnitude of my father’s stroke and been given more clear medical information, I would have made a different decision.

My father lived 14 more years, but he was confined to a wheelchair and had minimal speech capabilities. He suffered. Despite my parents’ long-term health insurance policy, his illness also ate away at their financial resources.

Three years ago, my father finally passed.

Afterward, I thought my mother would have a chance to be healthier and happier, as she was no longer a primary caregiver. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Last year, she fell and broke her hip. At the same time her physical health declined, so did her mental health. Now she, too, requires 24-7 care.

Today, my mother resides in a senior living facility. It’s clean and safe. She’s treated with kindness. A nurse visits her once a week and calls me with any problems. But since my mother’s finances were drained from my father’s illness and her long-term insurance doesn’t cover much, I support her. At first, I was optimistic that Medicare would help, but at the end of the day, when someone needs around-the-clock care, the cost is too considerable.

I’m not complaining; many others are in a similar situation. As people live longer, they need to be cared for. That’s the concern with an aging population, and it’s one that should be addressed more seriously.

I think the healthcare crisis we’re in is substantial. It’s a tragedy to see people lose their Medicare while drug prices rise, and to hear about terrible nursing home situations in the news. The longer people live, the more needs they have, and the greater the burden on our entire system.

I doubt that I’m alone in these thoughts. There’s a movement in our country toward hospice services. People want compassionate solutions, not 911 drama. As we have the opportunity to live longer, it will become critical for people in the medical field to come clean with families so that appropriate choices can be made. Hopefully, those decisions will be guided by love.

On the other hand, exactly when the “best” years are in your life depends on you, your career and your interests. Each individual’s journey is different. There’s no prescription for success or happiness.

If I were to live to 100 and still had a good quality of life, I’d continue to engage in enriching, cultural activities. I’d spend my days going to the theater, watching old movies and reading fiction. I’d surround myself with interesting stories, and would hopefully be reading them to my great-grandchildren.

Although I officially retired as president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2015, I recently completed a two-year senior fellowship at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Now, I’m serving as a senior advisor to the Onassis Foundation’s cultural centers in New York and Athens, Greece.

I love what I do, but it’s hard to know if I’ll still be working at the age of 100. Younger people will call the shots at that point, but hopefully I’ll be interesting enough to stick around and contribute to their shining moments.

If so, I’d try to illuminate and educate younger generations without always saying, “In my day…” I’d try not to hold on to the same level of professional intensity I had in my 40s, 50s and 60s.

In return, I’ll hopefully be seen as a visionary in my day — someone who worked hard, did well and added more vitality to the field.

As humans, we can’t go backward. We have to move forward. If it’s intimidating to think about that in big chunks, then we can break it down day by day. To me, that means if I can wake up and feel good, continue to work and be with the people I care about, then I’m lucky.


Karen Brooks Hopkins served as President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music from 1999 until her retirement in 2015 and was an employee of the institution since 1979. She has worked with the Cultural Institutions Group, the Mayor’s Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission and as the Brooklyn Regent for the New York State Education Department. In 2013, Crain’s named her one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in New York.” Karen currently serves on the boards of the Jerome L. Greene and Alexander Onassis Foundations, as Senior Fellow in Residence at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Fellow of the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University.

This post is paid for by AARP.

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