Baby Boomers' Defining Characteristics Could Help Them Redefine Aging in America

Since making their debut in 1946, baby boomers have been a major force for social change in the United States. Their epic numbers and independent spirit have influenced everything from politics to pop culture, transformed the make-up of the American family and workforce, reshaped societal norms, and created our modern notion of consumerism. Boomers have redefined each phase of life, and they're expected to do the same as they age. Last year, the oldest boomers turned 65, marking the start of monumental growth in the senior population.

Earlier this month, I participated in a panel discussion about what the aging of the baby boomers will mean for our country. The discussion, which included Arianna Huffington and a few other experts on aging, was part of the Aging in America Conference, the annual meeting of the American Society on Aging.

With 77 million people in their ranks, boomers are expected to intensify many of the challenges already facing our country, and much of the discussion among my fellow panelists focused on those challenges.

While it's true that aging boomers will impact our communities' resources and the programs and services that provide necessary support to older Americans, it's also important to recognize that some of the defining characteristics of this generation should serve them well throughout their retirement years. Boomers should take heart knowing that what makes their generation unique could make their senior years healthier and more enjoyable than they might expect them to be.

1. Boomers desire to be active and maintain their well-being throughout retirement. Just as boomers revolutionized our society in their youth, they're expected to revolutionize what it means to age in America. Most experts who study this demographic agree that the way boomers will live out their retirement years will look very different from the historical, stereotypical image of senior citizens. Medical advances will enable boomers to live longer than any generation that's come before them, so rather than retiring into the background of our society, more boomers will remain vibrant and active throughout their retirement years than was the case of previous generations.

So boomers who love Zumba, yoga and walking clubs should be proud of their commitment to health and wellness and put it to good use. Maintaining an exercise regimen will help ward off the effects of chronic conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and some cancers, and will do wonders for their overall mental and physical health, helping them enjoy life to the fullest.

Boomers should talk with their physician about an exercise plan that can keep them feeling fit for decades to come. Exercise classes focused on maintaining good balance such as Tai Chi or those that are specifically geared for older adults could be a good option. They're a great way to improve stamina and avoid injuries while also meeting like-minded new friends. And if they're already enrolled in Medicare, they should look for a plan that offers coverage of a fitness club membership.

2. More boomers are college graduates than any generation before them. As compared to their parents' and grandparents' generations, boomers were far more likely to earn a college degree and hold white-collar jobs. This all translates to a lot of knowledge and skills that shouldn't go to waste as this generation heads into retirement.

Many boomers are pursuing second careers or taking on part-time jobs, partly out of financial necessity but also in part because boomers likely derived much satisfaction from their careers and professional accomplishments. Just because they've reached traditional retirement age doesn't mean those opportunities to learn, earn and grow have to stop. Boomers who want to continue contributing to society but not necessarily in a traditional job setting should embrace the opportunity to pass on what they've learned to younger generations by volunteering.

They can also challenge their minds by staying actively engaged in maintaining their health. They can find a wealth of accurate information from reputable sources online or at their local bookstore, providing plenty of opportunities to read about managing chronic conditions, preventing health problems and enhancing physical, emotional and mental well-being. Boomers should take advantage of the information and resources at their fingertips and apply what they learn by making changes to their lifestyle and bringing a list of questions to their next doctor's appointment.

However they choose to stay mentally fit and engaged in their community, they should feel good knowing that their professional success will continue to bring rewards to both themselves and our broader society as they and their fellow boomers enter retirement.

3. Boomers are savvier, more discerning consumers than previous generations of seniors. Their size and buying power prompted companies to ramp up production of consumer goods, which multiplied their options for everything from socks to cars. And they typically had money to spend on these options given that they're more likely than their parents' and grandparents' generations to live in dual-income households, creating more income to spend on the myriad consumer goods at their disposal. These dynamics shaped boomers into status-conscious, sophisticated shoppers. Rather than sticking with the tried-and-true, they're more likely to switch products until they find the one that meets all their needs.

Boomers' buying habits are likely to affect how they approach health care decisions as they age, creating another opportunity for them to apply their savvy shopping skills. Every day, 10,000 boomers are becoming eligible for Medicare, and many are realizing that our nation's largest health insurance program is not always easy to understand. It can be tough to make sense of Medicare's multiple parts, costs, eligibility requirements and enrollment rules.

Fortunately for boomers, they're already accustomed to sifting through dozens of options to find a solution that best fits their needs, and that's exactly the same approach they should take to Medicare. Boomers who are new to Medicare or will be enrolling soon should use their shopping skills as they explore their options. They should make a list of what's most important to them in their health care coverage, and use that list to evaluate the plans available in their area. Doing so will increase the odds that they'll find coverage that meets their health and financial needs.

However they choose to view the aging process, boomers should know that much of how they experience aging is within their control and strongly influenced by their personal choices. Getting older will hopefully happen to all of us, but that doesn't mean we have to follow the same model of aging as the generations that have come before us. And who better to shift our country's perception of what it means to be an active and healthy older adult than the boomers?

Rhonda L. Randall, D.O., is chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement, the nation's largest business dedicated to the health and well-being needs of seniors and other Medicare beneficiaries.