Jewish World Review Oct 3, 2005/ 29 Elul,
Taking care in an aging society
As a child, I hated it. The High Holidays made my parents sad.
They grieved for their own dead parents. I wanted something like our New
Year's Eve celebration, when the noisemakers and paper hats and abundant
bubbly made everybody giddy, laughing and singing and marking the midnight
hour with kisses all around.
But now, with the understanding that is the consolation for the
passing of the years, I share the sentiments of my vanished parents. My
mother and her mother, who lived into what is now labeled "old, old age,"
were fortunate to have been cared for by their children. I vividly remember
the day a hospital bed was wheeled into our guest room for my grandmother,
whose heart was too weak to any longer allow her to live independently. I
was often awakened in the wee hours of the night by my grandmother calling
out my mother's name, as though she were a child frightened by the dark.
A generation later, my own mother moved into an apartment next
door to us. The frailty that came with her ninth decade required "assisted
living" with the assistance provided by family. Until her 91st year, when
we arranged for 24-hour care in her apartment, my mother was free to visit
under her own steam every day. "The best thing I ever did," she often told
me, "was to move next door to you."
A report by the President's Council on Bioethics recalls these
memories. "Taking Care: Ethical Caregiving in Our Aging Society," is about
the personal and public challenges that sons and daughters face as the
nation moves toward "a mass geriatric society." We debate the economics of
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but we're loath to confront our
complex and sometimes paradoxical attitudes toward the oldest among us. The
authors of this report want to change that.
Self-reliance, self-sufficiency, personal choice and autonomy
compel us to write living wills, to take out long-term care insurance. "But
in so doing, [this approach] deliberately ignores the truth of human
interdependence and of our unavoidable need for human presence and care,
especially when we can no longer take care of ourselves," writes Leon Kass, chairman of the Council on Bioethics, in this
thought-provoking and anxiety-evoking document. "The moral emphasis on
choosing in advance needs to be replaced with a moral emphasis on caring in
the present. The moral emphasis on independence needs to be supplemented
with a moral commitment to serve the lives of those we love regardless of
In a column about that television commercial depicting an
elderly couple insisting that they don't want to be a burden on their
children in their old age, I suggested that my children were exactly who I
wanted to be a burden on not to oppress, but to reward, in the way that
little children are a burden on their parents. The mail reflected agreement
in direct proportion to the age of the reader.
We're younger longer, and older longer, than at any time in
human history. We live in a youth-worshipping society, but the elderly wield
political clout that could draw us into a psychological and economic war
between the generations. As the elderly increase in numbers, younger workers
decrease proportionately, due to lower birth rates. It's likely that a third
of the population will live to be over 85; by the year 2050, the number of
those over 85 is likely to be as many as 18 million. But after 85, only 1
person in 20 is fully mobile. An aging society affects every corner of our
lives health care, housing, work, goods, political power, personal
relationships and family connections.
The baby boomers are learning to their astonishment that as they
age, moving closer to "senior status," their perspectives are changing.
"Taking Care" is a government document but it avoids bureaucratic
argle-bargle, calling for "deeper wisdom and resources of character" as a
nation and as individuals: "We will need greater ethical reflection on what
the young owe the old, what the old owe the young, and what we all owe one
another." The new year, Jewish or otherwise, is a good time to reflect on
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