As an international correspondent for National Public Radio, Jennifer Ludden reported from Central America, the Middle East, West Africa and Europe, covering a wide range of issues such as immigration, the Oslo peace process and the Kosovo War. She returned to the United States after 9/11 to start a family, and started reporting on family issues a couple years ago. This month, she’ll be contributing to NPR’s special series on Life in Retirement.
Ludden graduated from Syracuse University with a dual degree in TV, radio and film production and English. She attended the NPF program on retirement issues in June having already covered the topic extensively in her own reporting. She talked with me about her views on the nation’s aging population, how it has affected her personally and how she switched from covering urban polygamy in Africa to reporting on obesity in Michigan.
How did you transition from international reporting to family reporting?
[Laughs] To describe what I’m doing now is as far as you can get from Middle East war coverage. My life changed. We came back from overseas when I was eight months pregnant. Jerusalem was my last posting. I figured we’ll just change everything. There’s no going back and there’s no regrets, get the house, the kids, different job, everything. Life is different. Some of the topics I cover today are things that I never would have even imagined myself being interested in, but you know your life evolves and here I am with kids, and suddenly it seems really fascinating. [Retirement issues are] connected to the economy and large trends that are very important and affect everyone.
How has your international experience influenced your reporting on the issues you cover today?
When I first came back, it was just after 9/11, and for a brief time I [dealt with] post-9/11, looking at civil rights and the security programs targeted at Muslims. Having just come from the Middle East, that was really helpful. Then I covered immigration, and obviously I brought something from my background to that, what drives people to come to the States and what they’re leaving behind. I did a little bit of travel to Central America and Mexico, just a few trips, so I felt as if I was using some of my international background there.
Has reporting on retirement issues made you dread old age more than average?
You bet. [Laughs]Put away money! Even if you don’t have any money, put away money! The first day of the retirement fellowship I went home and had a heart-to-heart with my husband and it was really depressing. We were crunching numbers. It’s a real problem, and it’s so true, there’s this denial. I feel like denial can be healthy, in some things we have a self-protective denial, but it’s not healthy in this case. I think we don’t want to think about it and that’s a problem. I’m smart enough, I’m educated, I know, I remember hearing about all of this, but when I look back, there were periods when I was not contributing [to my retirement], when I was freelancing and I didn’t know what my income was going to be.
So the financial aspect outweighs all the others?
Yeah, and it’s unsettling how the whole landscape has changed. Because of demographics and the economy, the stock market and the housing market, basically our generation can save more than our parents’ generation did and yet still not have as much in the end.
How do you foresee budget cuts affecting retirement benefits?
I anticipate that people who earn a decent wage will maybe not get as much of a percentage of Social Security benefits, I don’t know. But the takeaway from the [NPF] seminar is that it will be cut, if not now, before I get there. I don’t think it’s going to disappear though. People don’t have anything else. I just don’t think they can take that away in a sane, civil society. But people are increasingly depending on it when it was never intended for that. It was meant to be part of a broader package of savings, like a pension, that people don’t have any more, and personal savings, which people have not accumulated.
How are seniors dealing with that?
They’re working a lot longer. I interviewed a 78-year-old bus driver [as part of a longer story], who just did not think he would ever stop working. And he was raising a granddaughter. He had raised his children and now he was raising an 18-year-old granddaughter, and his wife had died and left him with lots of medical bills. He was in terrible financial shape. He was good-humored about it, and I had a wonderful conversation with him, but it’s very sad that he just does not think he’ll ever be able to stop working. The piece that just went up this morning [by NPR reporter Kathy Lohr, in Atlanta] was on a woman who just bought property in Costa Rica. She can go there and actually get more than she needs to live on from her Social Security, where here she would just be making ends meet. There’s a booming retirement business in Costa Rica, but her two sons and grandchild are here, so it’s a tradeoff.
Last year you did a series called “Aging at Home”, where you detailed all the ways seniors are finding to stay independent in their own homes, including using community volunteer networks, in-home motion sensors and tele-caregivers. Has there been any more progress on that front?
I haven’t checked back on the topic, but I think there definitely will be. There are all kinds of living arrangements that people are talking about. The baby boomers were famous for having these communes when they were young, and now they’re talking about an old-age version of it, where you have a bunch of people, mostly women, widows or single women, living together and taking care of one another, maybe with a resident nurse on staff. There are all kinds of ways that people are talking about in changing our living arrangement to accommodate people living longer and older, but wanting to stay in the community and not go into a nursing home.
Another of your stories focused on the problems busy crosswalks pose to seniors. Do you feel as if the world is designed without the elderly in mind?
It’s true. Streets and downtown and everything I don’t think have been designed for the elderly, but I do think it will change a lot. In one sense I feel financially it’s a tough spot to be in, in your 40s, in this day and age, but socially it’s kind of nice to come after the baby boomers, because they changed everything along the way, and I do think they will bring their consumer-oriented demands into this new stage of life. All kinds of things will become different. You know, the way they’re building these [communal] homes, there are these little details they’ll change to make it easier to be in a house into older age. Someone described it to me as the Good Grips kitchen utensils. You’ve got can openers and all kinds of things with that nice thick, black, rubbery handle. Those are considered a part of universal design. They were created in an ergonomic sense to make it easier for the disabled or elderly to use, and yet we all use them and love them. Can openers before them were terrible. I think that is going to filter through all kinds of things and the baby boomers are going to set the stage, and by the time I get, you know, a little creaky and wobbly, things hopefully will be a bit easier.
What are the obstacles in making the world a more senior-friendly place?
Money. They’re debating the transportation bill right now in Congress, and the Chairman of the House Transportation [and Infrastructure] Committee [John L. Mica, R-FL,] has spoken out about how they need to save money and this is not the time to put in more expenses. Advocates say they would not cost very much money, but most of them cost some money, and so in a time of a tight budget, that’s probably the biggest obstacle.
Have you had any personal experiences in dealing with elderly issues?
My mother-in-law has had poor health for a long time, and so my father-in-law has basically been a caregiver without probably thinking of himself as that, and so I see that. I think of them whenever I do stories on caregivers and the difficulty of the job. My mom is very healthy, very lucky. My mother’s mother died at 86 and was very active until the end.
You did an experiment where you put on a “senior suit” to see how difficult everyday actions are for senior citizens. Are there easier ways for people to see things from their point of view?
People are going to see it more and more because of the sheer demographics of the country. The baby boomers just this year started turning 65. Eight thousand people a day are going to be turning 65 for the next 19 years. People [in their 20s are] just going to see it more and more. And the elderly will become a bigger part of our daily existence, whether they’re in our own families, or our neighborhoods, or our workplaces, wherever. I think in some sense that might be educational, it might raise awareness. People might think of their own longevity. I think they’re supposed to hit 20 percent of the population. Here’s another big takeaway I had from this [NPF] fellowship, I thought it was just the baby boom bubble. But it’s forevermore, because of lowering birth rates. So the whole society will forevermore be an older society.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been doing a series on reproduction and technology, so I’m looking at donor-conceived children and the issue of openness. Some people think it’s going to follow adoption in terms of something that used to be very closed and secretive, even among families, and now it’s become much more open. Parents tell their children they’re adopted more often, the children have more of a relationship with their biological parent. Some people think donor families are going to follow that same trend. Then we’re doing a network-wide series on obesity in America, and it’s very interesting, the cost to employers, the cost to employees. If you are obese you are less likely to be hired, to be promoted, and it’s twice as much for women as it is men. Businesses are being hit not just in their health care costs, but in many small ways they have to accommodate larger employees. And there are a lot of companies that are creating wellness programs to really encourage more activity, movement and a better diet.
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