David Lereah is the Founder and Executive Director of United We Age, a nonprofit organization, based in Vero Beach, Florida, to serve the elderly population. Along with his passion for supporting the senior community, Dr. Lereah is a recognized economic expert in the financial and real estate industries, assuming roles as Chief Economist for the National Association of Realtors and Chief Economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association. He has shared his expertise as a frequent economic commentator for notable national media like CNN, CNBC, The Today Show, NPR, NY Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Along with these roles, he has served as a faculty member for Rutgers University and the University of Virginia. He earned his BA in Economics from American University and Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Virginia.
In our interview with Dr. Lereah, we discuss aging in America, specific reasons for why it is crucial to eradicate the taboo of aging from our society, and what seniors can do to take back their power in the aging process. He also highlights how the partnership program, Stay In Touch, between United We Age and software company Speak2, improves seniors’ quality of life through accessing the internet with Amazon’s Alexa.
Speak2: To start, why as an American society do we not talk about aging?
David Lereah: It almost comes as a surprise to many that growing old is a relatively new phenomenon in the world. A century ago, the life expectancy was about 50 years old. So, people died before their bodies experienced the marks of aging that we face today, like hearing impairment, loss of mobility, and dementia. So the conversation about growing old is relatively new from a historical perspective.
Today, our life span is about 79 years old. If you are already 65 years old today, your life span is 85 years old. It’s starting to creep up, which is a great thing, lots of centurions, I think 400,000 of them in the next ten years. So aging now is becoming very, very popular. It’s becoming increasingly popular because of the Baby Boomer Generation, which I’m part of. We were the biggest generation ever. And 10,000 of us are turning 65 years old every day. The Boomers who really controlled society for so many years, now they’re aging. And they’re going to make sure that aging is part of the conversation. So that’s very clear to me right now. That’s the good news.
The bad news, why aging is so taboo, is that conventional wisdom says that older people should retire, shrivel, and fade into the sunset. That’s how we always looked at aging. We are in a youth-dominated society, with heavy doses of celebrity worship. The message is that old is really not cool. Older people are relegated to the backside of society. So conventional wisdom really needs to be turned on its head, and the Boomer Generation is doing that as we speak. If you look to different cultures, China, for example, they respect their elders. They always have, always will. They let their elders eat first when everyone else is seated. They have to have the elders sit down before everyone else can sit down. They will not contradict their older generation, they let them speak their mind, so they get a great deal of respect. That’s something that we’re not getting in America. We are a “forever young” society.
Speak2: What are the unintended consequences of not talking about seniors’ health challenges, senior living, and other parts of aging?
David Lereah: I would say that it’s interesting how parents and educators teach children how to be firemen, lawyers, doctors, construction workers, but no one teaches us how to be 70, 80, 90 years old. No one teaches us how to deal with life-threatening diseases. No one teaches us how to deal with the marks of aging. When you get arthritis, when you get diabetes, when you get cancer – I mean, the list goes on and on. Even mobility. When people are aging and can no longer walk on their own, they hesitate to use a walker because they are embarrassed. When people are hard of hearing, they hesitate for years before they break down and purchase a hearing aid because they are ashamed. Society needs to change. We need to change that whole view of aging individuals, who we view as helpless, rather than strong for the years that the senior lived.
The consequences are that older people will experience loneliness, anxiety, bouts of depression, and quality of life decline. This will get worse if we continue to brand aging as old, helpless, and useless.
Speak2: I think that is a great transition into how we can start the conversation about aging. One, you have a senior who is going through the aging process. And then you have the family, friends, and caregivers who are starting the conversation with the senior who doesn’t want to have that conversation or are trying to support the senior.
What can seniors do to take ownership of the conversation and take power back in aging, rather than resort to feelings of embarrassment and viewing aging as taboo?
David Lereah: Unfortunately, we are still in this “forever young” society. Many people are just embarrassed and ashamed, as we mentioned about their marks of aging. Billions of dollars are spent on anti-aging creams, surgical procedures – especially women versus men. That’s another bias of aging in society: women are not allowed to age. They have to continue with their youthful appearance, where men can have gray hair and age in an honorable way. So that all needs to change. We need to promote a healthy lifestyle and give people more confidence.
I think the real change here for seniors is that we need more senior role models. It could be celebrities, athletes, or community leaders. We need a new image campaign to rebrand older people into something more meaningful, respectful, and exciting. We label Boomers as entering the third act of their lives. Not the final act. They call it the third act. There will still be 20 years of Boomers from 60 to 80, living a very exciting and meaningful life. With aging, you can almost change the categories of what it is to be an older person. Everyone thought that 55 plus and you are now an older senior citizen. But because of medical technology and the progress we’ve made in food and diet, you can probably go all the way to 80 before you call someone an elder. Changing those categories will be the first thing.
But seniors can help themselves by continuing with community service, having bucket lists, delaying retirement, and most importantly, for me, staying social. It’s essential for older people as they age to have social interaction. It’s one of the reasons why we created United We Age. There were many seniors in their 70s, 80s, and 90s who had lost their loved ones. Now they are by themselves and don’t have the energy to meet new people. And, their children may be living 1000 miles away. So they need social support, and that’s what United We Age is all about.
Speak2: What can friends and family members of seniors do to have this conversation and support their elderly loved ones?
David Lereah: They really need to do it together. Seniors need to take charge of their health and wellbeing. They need to do that while having the mental ability to do it. Once they have dementia, they are leaning heavily on their family and caregivers. This is where the family needs to make sure they go to their doctor visits, have a well-balanced diet, and take their medication. More importantly, they both need to create a sense of purpose for that senior. I’ve seen too many seniors in “God’s waiting room” – it’s like watching laundry dry on a clothesline. They are just waiting for them to meet their maker. That’s not the way to live the Twilight years of your life. So with the help of family and friends, seniors themselves need to find meaning in their lives.
Seniors also have to maintain their mental health. There’s a lot of mental exercises as well as meditation that seniors are now starting to do. Boomers are leading the way with that. Do you see all those meditation apps on the internet like Headspace and Calm? Boomers are beginning to use these apps, which will improve their mental health as they continue to age. So, their family members and their children really need to push them in that direction.
With that, seniors need to be better informed about growing old. They need to understand how they are going to cope with the marks of aging that will happen to them. All of us are going to experience the marks of aging. That’s my message in my book, The Power of Positive Aging. And that’s something that you have to do. You need to change your expectations and prepare for growing old while you are younger because then you have the mental ability to prepare.
Last but not least I think socializing is the most important thing for seniors, and their family needs to encourage that. They need to promote social interaction, mental activity, and physical activity for their parents. The most important thing is that they need to stay connected with their parents and their seniors. That is where the technology comes in to help them stay connected.
Speak2: Exactly. You talked briefly about changing these expectations, and I feel like technology is the biggest change in expectations that seniors especially have had to go through. Not only before the pandemic but especially because of the pandemic. They are changing the expectations on how they stay connected with their family and connect with their caregiver and community.
David Lereah: You triggered something in my mind. When we talk about expectations, it is really important for seniors, as well as their family members, to understand what’s happening to their parents as they grow old. I call it balancing. You need to stay in balance with your life. If you are not in balance, there will be stress, anxiety, and bouts of depression. And most people that grow old experience anxiety and bouts of depression. Their life is out of balance because their expectations remain as they were when they were young. Now that they are older, they need to revise their expectations and their priorities in life. They are no longer bringing up a family with kids. They are empty nesters and need to focus on themselves more than their children, so there’s a balancing act that needs to take place. That’s a very big role for the senior family members.
Speak2: How can technology give seniors confidence, independence, and help them manage throughout the aging process?
David Lereah: This is where it all started for United We Age. Before we thought about technology, our major program was called Friends for Seniors. These were seniors living in senior living communities, and they were lonely. 50% of seniors in long-term care facilities and nursing homes don’t have family visiting them regularly because their family may live far away. They are very lonely, and there is very little social interaction. So, we created a program called Friends for Seniors, where we visit those seniors physically. We say hello to them, on their birthday we buy them birthday presents and a card, during the holidays we give them holiday gifts and cards and much more. We try to develop a relationship with them.
When the pandemic came, we couldn’t go inside the facility. Seniors were not able to communicate with even their own families. That’s where the technology came in. So we started thinking about the Amazon Echo to get video calls with the seniors. And then Amazon introduced us to Jillian Guerra and her company, Speak2. And that’s how we all came together. Millions of seniors reside in these senior living communities or stay in their homes living by themselves, and they have inadequate access to the internet. Older people are intimidated by the internet and using online tools, so they are not experiencing the benefits of the internet. That created everything we are starting to do now with Speak2.
We know that access to the internet improves mental health and quality of life. Our goal was to empower seniors to interact on the internet so they can interact with their families. And then when we met Speak2, they said, “Whoa! We’ve got something much better here than interacting with their family. We have software that can let them interact with facility staff and caregivers!” So now it’s the complete kitchen sink that we can offer. That’s the breakthrough that we created: the Stay in Touch program, which is dedicated to improving seniors’ quality of life through access to the internet.
Speak2: How does the Stay in Touch program and the partnership between United We Age and Speak2 help normalize and support the aging process?
David Lereah: When we met Speak2, we knew the internet would help these seniors connect with the world, but Speak2 had so much more than that. The caregivers, the doctors, the messaging, the leaving notes – so much more. Our partnership was to bring Amazon Echo devices to aging adults living independently or in senior living communities. Getting an Alexa device in their home that is voice-activated, it’s those commands that resolve the issue of being intimidated.
I have a 93 year-old mother. She can’t use her smartphone anymore. It’s too small for her, and her fingers can’t operate it. So, I got her an Echo, and she now talks to Alexa and can make calls. I even put photos on her Alexa to see the family, the grandkids, and what they are doing. Those are the benefits that improve their quality of life, and there is so much more we can do as we grow the offerings of what an Amazon Echo device can do.
The last fundamental objective is to get seniors involved in the technology revolution of this country. They have been on the sidelines, and we are bringing them in. Let’s all enjoy technology, not just younger people. That way, they are connected with the world and feel like they live a more meaningful life. They’ll be able to interact with their family and friends, keep up with the news, and play mental games online to stimulate their minds. The list goes on and on about what they can do now that they can connect to the internet.
In all, we want to make these devices senior-friendly. Speak2 is customizing these devices to seniors while United We Age is behind the software creating activities that seniors should be doing to have a better quality of life as they age.