The University Record, November 5, 1996

Number of older veterans expected to increase 600 percent

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Old soldiers neither die nor do they fade away. In fact, the number of American veterans age 85 and older is growing so rapidly that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has mounted a campaign to cope with what it calls the "geriatric imperative." And with the number of female veterans increasing, this imperative is bound to grow stronger.

"The number of old veterans is expected to increase nearly 600 percent from 1993 to the year 2010," says W. Andrew Achenbaum, professor of history, deputy director of the Institute of Gerontology and a U.S. Army veteran. "That will take the population from about 200,000 today to about 1.3 million people."

Achenbaum is co-author of a case study identifying some of the keys to late-life satisfaction for veterans and others, published in volume 24 of the journal Parameters.

Longevity presents some special problems for veterans, he observes. "The average career military person retires before age 43," notes Achenbaum. "For some veterans, the decades after retirement will be filled with productive activities. But for others, these extra years will seem a bane, not a blessing.

"As one aging veteran put it, 'I wish I had known I was going to live as long as I have. I would have lived smarter.' "

To help today's veterans take advantage of the opportunities their long lives and retirements provide, Achenbaum and first author Lt. Col. Michael W. Parker, who held a National Institute on Aging post-doctoral fellowship at the U-M, analyze the last years of one famous veteran who managed to have a model old-age: Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Achenbaum and Parker identify six aspects of successful aging that Lee embodied:

 

Vocational flexibility. Lee established a major college that stressed classical subjects and practical education.

 

Domestic growth. Lee became a prototype of intergenerational care-giving, familial responsibility and social support, helping his sick wife and several other family members.

 

Emotional growth. He survived the traumas of war and cumulative losses, all the while maintaining a personal sense of control and autonomy.

 

Financial stability. He set his own house back in order, serving as an example of frugality to the defeated South.

 

Physical function. All his life, Lee maintained an exercise regime that helped maximize his independence and functionality, even though he suffered from several chronic health conditions.

 

Spiritual growth. Lee would allow the small voice of conscience, rooted in unceasing faith, to have an uncommon influence in all spheres of his life and decision making.

"Each person's life history is unique," Achenbaum says, "but the story of one person's life has the potential power to move us deeply in exploring legitimate questions about ourselves, particularly at a time of transition.

"Perhaps contemporary veterans who are experiencing a radical shift in mid-career and are facing the prospect of added years can find hope in the historical example of Robert E. Lee, whose vitality across the adult life span culminated during his last years when he contributed the most to his family, his community and his country."

Lt. Col. George Fuller and U-M physician William P. Fay co-authored the article, titled "Late Life Counsel 'For Him Who Has Borne the Battle': The Successful Aging Themes of General Robert E. Lee."