I'm old enough to remember when "family planning" meant spacing out the kids' births. Today, it has an entirely new meaning, reflecting...

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I’m old enough to remember when “family planning” meant spacing out the kids’ births.

Today, it has an entirely new meaning, reflecting a sea change in our population. Rather than plan for our children, “family planning” now means planning for our aging — how we’re going to meet our changing needs as we age and, often, the needs of other family members, like our parents or spouses. The demographics tell the story. In 1900, the average American died at age 47; today, it’s nearly 80 and climbing. People 85 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population, a trend that’s expected to continue for as long as every person reading this is alive. Between 2000-2050, the number of people 85 and older will grow from 4 million to 18 million individuals.

The good news is: We’re living longer. The additional good news is that we’re living healthier longer. More of us can expect to live productive, zesty lives well into our 80s and 90s than ever before in history.

But the bad news is: Despite longer, healthier lives than in the past, at some point, many of us will live well beyond our capacity to take care of our most basic needs — like shopping, cooking, bathing, getting to the bathroom, paying bills.

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That’s when we’ll need care. And it’s not likely to come from a robot or a call center in India, but from someone who’s just in the next room or down the hall and available (we hope) to assist us throughout the day.

Family members and friends provide 70-80 percent of all eldercare, especially in the beginning when our needs are relatively light, and it’s usually free. Those who have no family (or family nearby), or whose needs become more difficult and labor-intensive, must rely on professionals and individuals we pay to provide care. And it can be expensive. The more care we need, the more expensive it will be.

We might need care for a week, a year, or a decade — nobody can predict. What is predictable is that many of us are likely to live much longer than we ever expected as medical science and technology find new treatments and procedures to keep us alive.

Which is why a few months ago — for the first time in history — Gov. Christine Gregoire was moved to write every citizen in our state between the ages of 50 and 70, urging each to plan for their future care needs.

“Many people, myself included,” she wrote, “do not like to think about getting older or the possibility that at some time in the future we may not be able to do all the things we take for granted — routine tasks such as bathing and dressing. But the hard truth is that most of us will need some type of long-term care at some point in our lives.”

It’s hard to swallow, even for a governor.

But we must.

A friend and I exchanged e-mail recently. He, a gifted, retired medical researcher and former elected official, wrote, ” Most of us (including me) are reluctant to face up to the realities of what you’ve detailed. It’s not a whole lot of fun to plan for the years when we’re increasingly frail and isolated.”

My answer: “I agree — for me, too. As busy, healthy, productive people, we have a tough time imagining our decline. We’re too smart to let it happen. So, I say: Don’t even bother imagining, just prepare. If we’re lucky, the fates will be kind. However, you and I had parents who had difficult late lives, and I want a different ending for me. We know there will be an end, so it’s time to prepare now to make it better. That’s all we can do. We can’t postpone the inevitable; we can only try to make it more palatable.”

In her letter, the governor offered information to help in this effort, as part of a new federal program called “Own Your Future.” It’s a free “Long-Term Care Planning Kit” with information about home modifications, long-term care insurance, and tools to help you review your options and make decisions about care for yourself or a loved one.

You can order this tool kit by calling 866-752-6582 or going online to www.aoa.gov/ownyourfuture. If you haven’t begun to think about your future care needs, this kit will help you start and set you on the course of a new kind of family planning.

Liz Taylor’s column runs Mondays in the Northwest Life section. A specialist on aging and long-term care, she consults with individuals and teaches workshops on how to plan for one’s aging and aging parents. E-mail her at growingolder@seattletimes.com or write to P.O. Box 11601, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. You can see all of her columns at www.seattletimes.com/growingolder/

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