Aging in a Welfare Culture

Medical science has extended our average lifespans by many years in the last century or so. I'm thinking not just of the few who depend on high-tech life support, but of the many who stay alive by new surgical and pharmaceutical "cut and patch" methods. Then there's Social Security and other public and private social services for the elderly. Together, these make a considerably longer lifespan possible. As a result, the percent of seniors in society is constantly increasing. (I'm not big on details and statistics. Perhaps someone else can fill these in.)

But this is an excellent example of ignoring the "Law of Diminishing Returns". As we get into our sixties, we become eligible for benefits simply because we're old, even though we continually lose the ability to enjoy life or contribute to society. At the same time, with more and more help, we live longer and longer, refusing to consider the other option of "quitting while we're ahead". We think first of length of life rather than quality. I think society can no longer afford this. Of course we could afford it better if we didn't put a large percent of our effort into the military and other social inefficiencies, but it doesn't seem like this is about to change. If it did change, it would only delay the inevitable. If our culture doesn't go broke in this century (or rather if someone doesn't foreclose on our mortgage), it will either change or go broke in the next.

Social Security was a bad move. The government told the people that they were paying in advance for their own retirement, when actually they were just giving the government more credit with with which to hang themselves. No wonder we can't control the national debt.

In the three and a half years I was a building manager of low-income senior housing (112 senior apartments), perhaps you could say that one person died of a heart attack (though his heart condition had been deteriorating for months). The infrequency of heart attacks is due to the lack of excitement here. Contented, slow degeneration is more the norm. So perhaps you can understand why I wasn't sorry to leave. Senior housing is a warehouse where we keep units that we consider to be no longer usable, until they deteriorate to the point where we can move them to other storage facilities.

My solution? I doubt there is an easy one. I'm not in favor of making the genetic family (if one exists) responsible for the care of elders. I believe that each generation should concern themselves with the following generation more than the previous one.

I think we must first think more in terms of reducing and preventing suffering rather than delaying death. We must teach attitudes whereby a dying person can appreciate his past life rather than trying to continue it indefinitely at greater and greater expense to himself and others.

Perhaps it isn't pertinent, and may even be contradictory, but I like the idea of the communal family. A group without definite membership or borders, with no particular ties except inter- dependence, concern and trust. Security would come not from commitment to and from one other person, but to and from the group. The makeup, structure etc. of the group would change but the group would remain. One could better accept growing old and dying in the midst of those who truly cared rather than those who inherited a responsibility.

By increasing the average lifespan, while not changing the age of eligibility for Social Security (for example), we have been increasing the value of benefits out of proportion to our ability to pay for them. To even thing up, perhaps every five years, we should raise the age for eligibility by one year, thereby start reducing benefits, until we can afford them again. Some may think this would be taking away what is rightfully ours. Not necessarily. Instead think of it as people at present getting more than is rightfully theirs. Of course this is putting aside for the moment the "overhead" of supporting the rich, the military etc. but that's another subject. Demanding the right to stay alive at all cost won't solve those problems.


Send me your thoughts.
Dan Robinson, danrob@efn.org, Eugene, Oregon
My home page: http://www.efn.org/~danrob/