Age Discrimination: Midlifers Need More Than Extra Time To Cross The Road

In a nod to its aging population, the city of Minneapolis is adding a couple of seconds to its traffic lights to give older people more time to cross the street, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. While a lovely gesture -- and one that would undoubtedly fail in Los Angeles and New York, where slow-moving pedestrians make excellent hood ornaments for SUVs -- it nevertheless bears mentioning that the country's aging population needs help in far more pressing ways.

In case you were wondering, the added pedestrian time conforms with recent federal guidelines that say traffic lights should assume a walking speed of 3.5 feet per second. That's slower than the previous 4-feet-per-second standard based on a study 60 years ago by a Yale researcher, says the newspaper.

Why do we walk slower as we age? Here comes the knife blade: We gain more weight and our weight slows us down. Fair enough, but isn't getting the chicken to the other side of the street safely just the tip of the problem? Here are some other things boomers need:

Added teeth to the enforcement of age discrimination laws.

Boomers were hit hard by the recession along with everyone else. The big difference is that everyone else has more years left to work and because of that, more time in which to recoup their losses. Of course that assumes someone is willing to hire them. On average, reports Forbes magazine, it takes someone age 55 or over three months longer to find a job than a younger person. Some employers see gray hairs on a job applicant and presume they'll either want too much money or that their job skills are out-of-date.

Job retraining.

Many boomers spent decades working in jobs that no longer exist. Not everyone has figured out how to transfer those skills into an occupation with income. Old dogs can learn new tricks, but there aren't many community outreach classes for mid-lifers who need to be retrained. Reinvention speaks to an attitude of willingness to change. It's great to be willing, but someone needs to show us how. Why not make these classes available as a condition of collecting unemployment beyond a year?

Health care that makes sense.

We're not going to debate the merits here of Obama's health care plan, or what's likely to be left of it. But if ever there was something in need of fixing, it's our health care delivery system. When prescription drugs are less expensive on the open market than what you would pay for them if you filed a claim with your insurance plan (that you pay a lot of money for), something is seriously wrong.

Incentivize going to medical school.

While Jeff Daniels' character on Adam Sorkin's new show, "The Newsroom," may be misguided about a lot things, his early-in-the-show tirade about America no longer being the greatest nation on Earth struck some chords. One offshoot of the health care mess that nobody talks much about is the quality of our doctors. Didn't we used to have the best doctors in the world? Now people "procedure shop," and travel out of the country to have their surgeries. In 2010, the U.S. Dept. of Labor reported that the median salary for a physician was $166,400 per year or $80 an hour. And while that sure sounds like a lot, it's bupkis compared to what CEOs and banking leaders earn. Who wants to go to all those years of medical school, graduate owing a zillion dollars and wind up working for an insurance company that caps your earning power? Shouldn't we be a little worried that the best and brightest will find other fields of study -- like banking -- and not be there to repair our clogged arteries? And before anyone pontificates about how people should chose medicine out of a desire to serve humanity, puh-lease. Go into six-figure debt to serve mankind? Not buying it.

Medicare to pay for hearing aids.

In what has got to be one of the stupidest omissions around, hearing aids are not covered -- not even a nickel -- under the federal program that provides medical care for those 65 or older. Personally, I think we all just haven't shouted loud enough yet. One in five people who could benefit from a hearing aid doesn't wear one, says The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders, which cites the the rate of hearing impairment in Americans as they age: 18 percent of 45- to 64-year-olds, 30 percent of 65- to 74-year-olds and 47 percent of 75-year-olds and older.

Better lighting.

Go ahead; laugh if you will. By age 50, you probably think your arms have shrunk. If they were just a little longer, you wouldn't need reading glasses, right? Not being able to read without glasses translates into every day annoyances. I can't read the size label in the clothing store. I can't read the menu in the restaurant; as much as I appreciate the soft-lit atmosphere, I do need to be able to read the menu to know what I want to order. I sign credit card slips barely being able to see the signature line let alone the price I'm being charged. What's the big deal about making things brighter? Turn up the lights!

Make parking spots wider.

When shopping malls submit their building plans, they are told how many parking spots they need to provide based on anticipated shopper volume. Land being expensive and all, the smaller the spots are, the more of them can be created. It's kind of like the airlines squeezing in an extra few rows of seat by cutting five inches off your legroom. And just like those airline seats, parking spots are too uncomfortable. Our cars are bigger, we can't open our doors to get out, it hurts when we twist our back to contort through the opening when the guy in the next SUV is parking on top of us. My new policy is this: If I can't open my car door, you don't get my business.

Crack down on handicapped-parking abusers.

I get that not all infirmities may be visible to the naked eye, so I'm not someone who screams at every able-bodied-looking driver parked in a spot marked for the disabled. My beef is with the handicapped placards themselves. They are dispensed too liberally. Exercise, like walking, is not a bad thing. We know a guy who gets them just to avoid having to pay for metered parking when he leaves his car at the airport to go on vacation. Handicapped folks may need to park closer to the front door, but is there something that also makes them unable to feed quarters into the parking meter?