What Do We Owe Our Elders?

As men take on greater family and personal responsibilities, one of the things that they’ll find is that, like women, they’re generationally sandwiched between childcare and eldercare.  This is especially the case as men marry at a later age and father children at a later age as well.  If women are spending greater amounts of time in the workforce and men are consequently taking on greater responsibility in the household, then it follows that men will also begin to take a greater role in caring for their elderly parents as well.  If you thought that just managing the younger generation was tough, wait until the elder generation is thrown into the mix.  But our society is beginning a wrenching change as the social care network has to come to terms – like the rest of society – with the fact that promises made are greater than the resources available to satisfy them.  As this reframes our thinking, we need to ask ourselves a basic question:  what do owe our elders?

The question is both simple and truly profound as we are forced to confront the promises/resources issue.  Economic uncertainty breeds fear and a look overseas to economically troubled Japan and England – each with far more debt than we have – bears that out.  In January, the Japanese Deputy Prime Minister forcefully suggested that the elderly "hurry up and die" so as to not expend further medical and economic resources; he has since modified his stance after realizing that if the Japanese took his comments to heart, they’d wind up with a country that’s not only Montana’s geographic size but population density as well.  In October 2010, a governor of the Bank of England stated that the elderly there would have to accommodate low interest rates and spend down their savings for the common good; the notion that it should be left intact for future generations is no longer operative as the national resources dwindle in the face of overwhelming liabilities.  My sense is that the major difference between these two nations and our own is only that of a few years, so what they’re encountering now is what we’ll encounter within a few years.  On a different track, there is a new and growing push by the aging baby-boomers to advocate for physician-assisted suicide in the following states – Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont.  There are two notable factors about these states.  The first is that while the median age of an American is 36.8 years, the median age is lower in only Arizona and Kansas.  The other notable factor is that of these states, only Arizona and Montana are running without a deficit and Arizona just returned to the black after being hard hit in the 2007 downturn.  Coupling this information provides some insight that aging boomers envision a bleak future at odds with their here-to-fore free-wheeling generational ways and are looking to legalized suicide as an alternative to that path.  While there’s no hard evidence to support it, it’s also probable that the proponents are looking at the outsized cost of end-of-life medical care and wishing to save their families the bills.

I believe wholly in the Bell Curve and how it can be applied to so much of the world around us.  If applied to an average person’s life and encompasses the totality of the person – physical, intellectual, emotional – then it starts the ascent from the left bound and continues upwards until reaching a point in mid-life at which the person is at the peak of their capacities; as they age from that point, the slope descends until death is reached at the end of a long life.  Some curves end prematurely due to an early death, but the analogy holds for people as a whole.  This Family Bell Curve was the operative model for much of American history as three or more generations lived together in a single household where they could assist one another as they were able.  But this model broke after the Second World War as families began to migrate, with adult children moving for personal or professional reasons.  Even the newly affluent elderly moved to climes more conducive to their health and preferences and the result was that a three generational norm decreased to a two generational model, aka the nuclear family.   The affluence of the past three generations made this break survivable as tax revenues were steered by savvy politicians to create social programs that aided the elderly who were in one place while their families were often elsewhere and the Social Security program was expanded far beyond what FDR and the Great Depression-era legislators ever envisioned.  But we’ve gone beyond recession and our present real resources – not the paper and electronic digits emanating from the Federal Reserve – will neither the promises made nor the programs created.   

As we truly begin to renegotiate the generational contracts in a period of lesser resources, what do we owe our elders?  Surprisingly, it’s not very different from what we owe our children.  We parents are now astride the peak of the Bell Curve as we raise ascendant children on one hand and support declining parents on the other and what we owe is applicable on either slope.  

  • We owe them our respect, even if we realize when we become the adults that they possess their own character flaws that might make them individuals with whom we’d not associate were they not our parents.  That doesn’t mean to kow-tow, but it does mean that barring grossly deficient behavior, they deserve to be acknowledged as the people who raised us and brought us up into the world, worthy of our own support.  Perhaps once you more completely understand their own flaws, you can better appreciate what they might have accomplished in your own upbringing.
  • We owe them our time.  This commodity has been stretched as more families turn to multiple part-time jobs to make the ends meet and is increasingly precious for many parents.  But the medical and bureaucratic system that we’ve created is complicated and opaque, difficult to understand from the outside and full of programs that seemingly overlap and confuse as to who they serve.  It’s difficult for those of us who are comfortable with the technological accesses – automated prescription renewal plans for example – but it can be overwhelming and fearful for those who are hard of hearing or recognize their own failing  faculties.  The upshot is that we have to be ready to provide the time to help them navigate these systems at the least, and physically assist them if necessary.
  • We owe them our conversation.  The elderly often have little more than the media to occupy their time and there are commentators on either side of the spectrum who make a bundle from propagating fear and division, separating us from them.  Our words can be the oil that calms their water and we should provide the time to listen and explain.  The unspoken part of this is that we ourselves have to take an interest in what’s occurring around us so that we ourselves understand what’s going on around us.
  • We owe them our support, whether it might be financial, physical or otherwise.  My own parents sent money each month to my paternal grandmother, who managed to accumulate an astonishing quantity of cosmetics and costume jewelry in her lifetime.  If my own parents are financially sound, I can still work in other ways to support them, such as attending medical appointments so that confusion is minimized on the part of both doctor and elder.  Likewise with repairs around the place, such as what my brother-in-law and sister did with my mother.
  • We owe them our adulthood.  Advancing age brings difficult decisions and a person of declining capabilities can find them both terrifying and depressing and it requires our input to help them navigate these decisions.  But some affect not just the elder, but also others and these others can include complete strangers; the status of an elder’s driver’s license is a case in point as the loss of independence brings their decline and eventual death into concrete and clear perspective.  Being an adult means that you have to consider more than just your own self-interest, but also the wider aspects, as difficult as they may be.

What frames my own thinking on what I owe my elders is also this, as self-interested as it may appear.  My job is to teach my children via word and action.  I know that I’m being watched and that the kids are taking their own lessons from how I proceed; while I can preach about what I have to do, it’s crucial that they actually see me do it as well.  It’s vitally important for my wife and I that they see a working model in action because the time will come when they’re astride the Curve and we’re descending.  And the programs that presently exist will likely be curtailed.

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