August 7, 2009

Go West, Old Man

Where Older Adults Feel Young at Heart

If a latter-day Ponce de Leon were to search for a modern fountain of youth, he’d do well to explore America’s West.1 There he’d find the highest concentration of older adults in the United States who don’t think of themselves as old. Fully 78% of adults ages 65 and older who live in the West say they don’t feel old, compared with 67% of older adults who live in the rest of the country, according to a Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 2,969 adults.

Asked how old they feel, two-thirds of Westerners ages 65 and older say they feel younger than their chronological years, compared with 57% of older Americans in other regions. Among older Westerners, half say they feel 10 or more years younger than their actual age and one-in-five say they feel 20 or more years younger.2

Older folks living in the West also feel healthier than older folks elsewhere. Among adults ages 65 and older, some 72% of those living in the West say they are in excellent or good health. This compares with 63% of those living in other regions of the country. Differences in self-reported health by region are not seen among other age groups in the population.

Older Westerners also get more exercise. Some 77% of Westerners ages 65 and older report they get some kind of physical exercise on a typical day, compared with 69% of those in the rest of the country. But when this question is refined just to include “vigorous” exercise, there is no statistically significant difference by region in the amount of daily exercise that older adults get.

How else do older Westerners compare with older adults in the rest of the country? The Pew Research survey finds broad similarities by region on many attitudes and experiences related to the aging process, but some notable differences when it comes to residential mobility, family relationships and living arrangements.

For example, older Americans in the West are more likely than those who live elsewhere to have moved at least once in their lives. According to a different Pew Research Center survey conducted late last year, just 23% of Westerners ages 62 and older have lived in their current community for their entire life. By contrast, more than a third of older adults living in the South say they have lived in the same community all their lives, as have roughly four-in-ten older adults living in the Northeast and Midwest.

This mobility appears to have created some distance between older adults in the West and their families. Majorities of older adults who have children and who live in the Northeast (53%), Midwest (59%) or South (58%) say they are in touch with a son or daughter every day, either in person, by phone or by email. By contrast, among older adults who have children and are living in the West, only four-in-ten (41%) are in touch with a son or daughter on a daily basis. However, this does not mean that older folks in the West are less satisfied with their relationship with their children — to the contrary, they are just as likely as older adults living in other regions of the country to say they are very satisfied with this aspect of their lives.

As is true of older Americans in other parts of the country, the vast majority of older folks in the West live independently in their own home or apartment. But older Westerners are twice as likely as those living elsewhere to reside in an age-restricted community: 16% living in the West say their home is in a senior-only community, compared with 8% of those living in other regions of the country.

The survey finds at least one potential drawback to living out West as an older person. Just 44% of older adults in the West say they are getting more respect as they get older, compared with more than six-in-ten of those living in the Northeast, Midwest and South.

Despite these differences, the experiences and attitudes of Westerners as they age are similar to those of older folks in other parts of the country across a wide spectrum of age-related matters examined in the survey. For example, older adults living in the West are no more or less likely than those living in other regions to report experiencing a range of potential problems associated with old age — such as illness, memory loss, loneliness or financial stress. In addition, they are no more or less likely to be enjoying the potential benefits of growing older — such as traveling, doing volunteer work and having less stress in the life. In terms of their demographic profile, older adults living in the West are more likely than those living in the Midwest to have attended college. However, when it comes to their household income and their satisfaction with their personal finances, they do not differ significantly from older folks living in other regions.

Cities, Suburbs or the Country Life

Having seen some differences by region in the attitudes and lifestyles of older adults, we wondered whether — irrespective of region –the experience of aging differs by whether someone lives in a city, suburb or rural area. Overall, the patterns are quite similar by community type. Whether one lives in the suburbs, city or in a rural area, equal proportions of older Americans say that they feel younger than their actual age. Also, when it comes to the potential problems and benefits of aging, there are very few differences linked to community type.

That said, there are some intriguing disparities worth noting. Older Americans living in the suburbs are more likely than those living in cities or rural areas to say they are dealing with sadness or depression. Nearly a quarter of older suburbanites (23%) say they often feel sad or depressed. This compares with 17% of those living in cities or rural areas.

Older Americans who live in rural areas are more satisfied than others with the number of friends they have. Some 72% of older Americans living in rural areas report that they are very satisfied with the number of friends they have, compared with 63% of those living in other types of communities. Across all three community types, older folks living in rural areas are the least likely to live in a senior-only community. Only 5% of rural seniors say they live in an age-restricted community, compared with 11% of those living in cities and 10% of older suburban dwellers.

Go West or Stay Put?

In the end, does where you live really impact your quality of life? Recent Pew Research surveys suggest that among Americans of all ages, those living in the West are, on average, somewhat more likely to be very happy than are those living in other regions of the country. And just looking at older Americans, those living in the West and the South are somewhat more likely to be very happy than are those living in the Northeast and Midwest.3

However, a comprehensive analysis of what predicts happiness among older adults points to factors other than region. For older Americans, being in excellent health, feeling very confident that they have enough money and assets to last through their retirement years and being highly satisfied with the number of friends they have are the strongest predictors of happiness.

Nonetheless, it is also clear that among older adults, feeling young is strongly correlated with overall happiness. Among adults ages 65 and older, some 34% of those who say they do not feel old report that they are very happy. By contrast, just 21% of adults ages 65 and older who say they do feel old also say they feel very happy.

In short, if you want to be among a lot of older folks who feel young and happy, the West looks like your best bet. Will it work for you? Hey, you gotta buy a ticket.

About the Survey

Results for this report are from a telephone survey conducted with a nationally representative sample of 2,969 adults living in the continental United States. A combination of landline and cellular random digit dial (RDD) samples were used to cover all adults in the continental United States who have access to either a landline or cellular telephone. In addition, oversamples of adults 65 and older as well as blacks and Hispanics were obtained. The black and Hispanic oversamples were achieved by oversampling landline exchanges with more black and Hispanic residents as well as callbacks to blacks and Hispanics interviewed in previous surveys. A total of 2,417 interviews were completed with respondents contacted by landline telephone and 552 with those contacted on their cellular phone. The data are weighted to produce a final sample that is representative of the general population of adults in the continental United States. Survey interviews were conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates (PSRA).

The survey questionnaire on which this report is based was written by the staff of the Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends project, including Paul Taylor, director, Kim Parker, senior researcher, Rich Morin, senior editor, D’Vera Cohn, senior writer and Wendy Wang, research associate. To read our report based on the full survey questionnaire, go to Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality.

Cite this publication: . “Go West, Old Man.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (August 7, 2009) http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2009/08/07/go-west-old-man/, accessed on July 23, 2014.

  1. Based on U.S. Census definitions, the Western region includes the following 13 states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. However, this surveydoes not include responses from residents of Hawaii or Alaska.
  2. Unless noted otherwise, data are from the Pew Social & Demographic trends Feb. 2009 aging survey. For more information, see June 29, 2009 report "Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality."
  3. Based on analysis of merged data from three independent surveys from June 2008, Oct. 2008 and Feb. 2009. Sample sizes are as follows: All age groups, n=7,479; Age 65 and older, n=2,249.