Don't call them old

Baby boomers are not taking the prospect of aging gracefully
2003-12-14T00:00:00Z Don't call them oldJEAN STARR Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
December 14, 2003 12:00 am  • 

The largest adult age group in American history is getting older.

And its members are not taking it lying down.

Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, remember their grandparents in support hose, with ugly glasses perched on their noses and foul-smelling stuff on their sore muscles.

But these stereotypical accessories for the aged likely won't be found in many self-respecting boomers' medicine chests or closets. The oldest of this enormous demographic is 57. The clutch of boomers aged 48 to 57 came of age within the anti-establishment, eco-friendly vibes of the 1960s and '70s.

They became big-time wage earners in the start of the acquisitive era that marked the 1980s. And it is this group that has been driving the re-invention of aging.

They became big-time wage earners in the start of the acquisitive era that marked the 1980s. And it is this group that has been driving the re-invention of aging.

According to the Yankelovich Monitor Perspective on Boomers, those in the 48 to 57 range are not in denial about getting older. Changes to their bodies are inevitable, but they won't sit still for changes that threaten their vanity, decrease their mobility and diminish the quality of their everyday lives. They are instead tuned into resources that can assist in minimizing aging's impact.

Most of these products provide aid to the aging, but they're attractive, techno-marvels that are worthy of an age when anything you want can be found on the Internet, and there's no excuse for looking like your grandparents.

Can't you hear me knockin'?

"Later in the evening as you lie awake in bed, with the echo from the amplifiers ringing in your head." -Bob Seger from his album "Turn the Page" (1976).

Rock stars from the '70s recorded music that seemed to sound best at dangerous decibel levels. Bob Seger hinted at its effects in his song, "Turn the Page."

Multiply the number of rock concerts attended by the decibel level at each one, factor in leaf blowers, stereo volume and industrial noise and you have the reason doctors are now seeing more middle-aged people with hearing loss.

Statistics from some recent studies hint that "huh?" may soon become a much-repeated baby boomer buzzword. In fact, results of a national health interview survey conducted by the National Center for Health showed that there is 26 percent higher rate of hearing loss among those now aged 46 to 64 than in previous generations. And researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found that cases of hearing impairment nearly doubled between 1965 and 1994.

Zeppelin fans wearing hearing aids? Forget it! But change the name to hearing instruments, make them disposable, digital and nearly invisible, and you can suddenly crank down the volume on the television.

Baby boomer entertainers who have suffered hearing loss include "Incredible Hulk" Lou Ferrigno, actor Richard (John Boy Walton) Thomas, and musician Pete Townsend (originally of legendary rock band Who fame.)

See the changes

The term "stylish bifocals" used to be an oxymoron. Now they are bought to make a statement that doesn't necessarily say, "I can't see without them." The Vision Council of America estimates that in 1998, 158.5 million Americans used some type of eyewear, up from 156.6 million the previous year.

Walk this way

The first few steps of a boomer's day could look as if they're stepping on hot coals. It's the classic sign of plantar fasciitis, and the pain often is treated with orthotics. According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, most Americans log 75,000 miles on their feet by the time they reach age 50. And for reasons that are difficult to fathom, many people believe it is normal for the feet to hurt and resign themselves to enduring foot problems that could be treated. The APMA has put its stamp of approval on 19 footwear manufacturers, including a relative newcomer called Dansko.

Dansko opened shop in West Grove, Pa., 12 years ago when Mandy Cabot and Peter Kjellerup (who happen to be baby boomers) began to market a line of clogs from Denmark. The comfy clogs were favorites of those in the medical field who spent a lot of time on their feet.

In the past five years, Dansko has introduced several new lines, including one dressed up for office wear. "We insist that all Danskos have 'Dansko DNA,' meaning the comfort features are in every shoe," said Dansko marketing representative Catherine Byers.

"Dansko has grown at a phenomenal rate, including a 30 percent increase in sales in 2002."

No old standards

Chuck Nyren is a leading creative consultant, copywriter, and columnist, who focuses on baby boomer demography, sociology and culture.

"Not wanting to get/be/look older isn't anything new. However, baby boomers will do it a bit differently," he said. "Looking and being healthy will be more important than toupees and botox. While botox and the like are getting a lot of press, I'm guessing only a small percentage of people are using stuff like that. Being able to ride a bike, play tennis and garden will be more important than looking good and feeling (bad)."

Only their hairdresser knows …

A 2002 Datamonitor report on the professional haircare industry says that the size of the market reached $1.45 billion in 2001 driven largely by the aging baby boomer population.

"The baby boomers are one generation that does not want to have gray hair," said Salon 218 owner Marilyn Petro. "Nor do they want wrinkles. Both hair color and skin care are huge right now."

Petro, who also finds herself in the category of leading edge baby boomer, compares today's salon offerings with those of 30 years ago when she entered the business. She said her clients are much better educated on hair and skin care than they were 30 years ago. The spa industry has grown tremendously, tempting stressed-out clients to come in for a full or half day of pampering.

In an economic downturn, though, salons that rely mainly on manicures, pedicures, facials and massage might see more empty chairs than those that offer haircare as a mainstay.

"You've got to get your hair colored," said Petro.

It's not only women who come in for root touch-ups. Petro said that within the last 10 years, male baby boomers have become accountable for 5 percent of her gray hair coverage appointments. A consideration that has become important in choosing hair and skin products is their claims of not having been tested on animals. Petro uses Redken, which is not tested on animals and is vegan friendly.

They believe in music

What happened to all the ubiquitous garage bands made up of 18- to 20-year-olds around in the 1970s?

After turning into family oriented wage-earners with no time for themselves, they are in a position to fiddle around and pick up their guitar and play, just like yesterday. Software designed to slow down a CD without changing its pitch and repeating a riff for practice has become a popular item for rusty fingered baby boomers. Music sales have remained in the black, not because of teens, but due to their parents.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America's RIAA 2001 Consumer Profile, those 40 and older make up 34 percent of music buyers. Based on a tally in 2002 of the 10 best-selling albums of all time, seven were recorded between 1968 and 1982. The Eagles' Greatest Hits is number one, Pink Floyd's The Wall; is number three, and Led Zeppelin's Untitled (IV) is number four.

"Those from 40 to 60 form the largest single group of people purchasing music," says Jeannie Novak, president and CEO of Indiespace, which pioneered the online distribution model for independent music products in 1994.

"Through the '90s, they took a larger share of the market than the younger group."

Living in a material world

Devices that claim to make life easier have flooded the market. Nyren says that the gimmicky stuff won't catch on. Savvy boomers are looking for things that work.

The need to sit used to be satisfied by plopping down on the ground. But joints are stiffer these days and it's no longer the sign of a sissy to tote a portable chair along on any kind of outing.

Canada-based Rittenhouse Co. makes custom garden pruners. While the PXR pruners originally were designed for professional use, company representative Bruce Zimmerman expects they will become very popular with the homeowner, a dream come true for gardeners with strength issues or carpal tunnel. "Its top and bottom handles are not aligned and neither is your hand. It's been bent and twisted to make it more ergonomically comfortable," he said.

Minnesota-based Best Buddies sells products that make it easier for gardeners to do their job.

Owner Blaine Jones jokes, "(For) the guys who played softball and soccer and hockey, once their knees go out they'll go into competitive gardening." To satisfy the competitive bent, Jones carries a planting auger powered by a cordless drill.

"We did 300 gladiolus bulbs in an hour," he said. For the ultimate in ease, Jones is working on marketing a plant hanger that mounts on deck railings without tools. It has the strength of permanent hangers but can be moved easily from place to place.

Consider also the plethora of items so common that it seems they've been there all along. Some are reinventions and others have been developed for guess who? Just to name a few, there are things that vibrate, heat up or cool down; magnifying mirrors, clocks with big numbers, new methods of exfoliation, remotes for everything from window coverings to lights, and teeth whiteners.

Nyren dreams about, what for him, would be the perfect bicycle.

"It would be cool-looking, not flashy. It would have wide tires and a huge comfy seat. It would have handlebars like on the old Schwinns," he said. "You want to sit there and be comfortable. You want some gears but you don't need 150. And you don't want to look old."

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