Old People

Old People

Originally published in the June 1977 issue of Senior Edition newspaper


Old Man Moses, after years of attending conferences about aging, was finally invited to speak his mind. Following is a slightly edited version of his speech delivered at a workshop on “Older Adult Consumers and Service and Aging Providers” held May 18-19 at the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley. The workshop was sponsored jointly by the American College of Nursing Home Administrations and University of Northern Colorado.

Old people – we may as well admit it – are a problem. There have never been quite so many of them. They are living longer. The existence of greater and greater numbers of them at a bare subsistence level is an increasingly costly proposition. The potential political power of old people is staggering, if you consider that by the year 2000, 25 percent of us will be in our “golden years” – 60 years and beyond. (It does not take more than a little imagination to suppose that the fruition of the insurgent “sixties” may come during the first decade of our new century; recalcitrant radicals from that earlier era will begin to experience anew the frustrations of living in a world run largely by people of a different age, with different lifestyles, different vested interests, and less personal awareness of death.)

Perhaps the most troubling aspect to all of this is that those of us who have been given, or who have assumed, responsibility for remedying the variety of perceived ills afflicting old people, and as a result the larger society, have never experienced old age. Our policies toward old people are based upon our assumptions about old people. To the extent that assumptions regarding any group of people are determined by a single, unifying characteristic of the group, those assumptions must be at least suspect. By basing our assumptions about old people upon the adjectival unity of their age, it becomes easy to ignore their obvious unity with the rest of us – they are people, too.

While this appears obvious on its face, a look at the tangled maze of federally funded programs designed to help our elders quickly lays bare the main assumption we have regarding them – they are no longer capable of taking care of themselves.

In almost every case, society’s assumptions about old people are a negation, not only of old people themselves, but of their potential as well. For example, the federal government apparently has decided that old people, being less politically aware and having less access to political power than the rest of us, need to have developed for them organizations that will advocate for their needs. In Colorado we have elderly advocacy organizations developed simultaneously by the Community Services Administration and by the Administration on Aging. In each case, the old people in these organizations serve in an advisory capacity to bureaucracies that have a vested interest in promoting services for the elderly or in advocating for needs of the elderly. The net effect has been to set bureaucracies representing different levels of government (each serving the elderly in different capacities) against one another, each claiming to represent the legitimate interests of Colorado’s elders.

Advocacy for the people by the government is doubly suspect. Not only are government bureaucrats placed in a position to define the needs of those for whom they advocate, they are also conveniently positioned to deliver those very services and operate those very programs which they regularly define as the highest priorities of their supposed constituency. It is no surprise that Colorado’s statewide advocacy organization, by virtue of its dependence on continued government support, will continue to seek to secure funds for what it perceives to be the elderly’s greatest need – advocacy. It is also no surprise that other agencies, also government-funded, whose function is to fund, coordinate, or to provide the delivery of services to older people, will continue to seek to secure funds for what they perceive to be the elderly’s greatest need – services.

(It causes no additional surprise to note that the National Council of Senior Citizens, a three million-member nationwide advocacy organization for older people, with strong ties to the federal government through a $12 million plus federal contract for the Senior Aides program, remains strangely silent on the issue of mandatory retirementNow it would be unseemly for heads of advocacy and service bureaucracies to unabashedly advocate for more money for their agencies. To legitimize this exercise, old people are recruited to serve on the boards which – in theory only – control the various organizations to which they are attached. The specter which is raised – that of old people used as pawns in bureaucratic struggles over what the priorities of old people ought to be – leaves serious doubt as to whether or not the real priorities of old people, if they can be so delineated, are even involved in the struggle.

It is instructive to consider the argument in favor of government-funded advocacy for the aged. It was presented recently, at a public hearing called by Senator Haskell, by the director of the federal Region VIII office of the Administration on Aging, Clint Hess. Defending the government’s role in funding advocacy efforts, Hess made the following statements.

  •   “Older people have neither the resources nor the recognition to be effective advocates.
  •   “Older people are unable to use their resources skillfully without outside help.
  •   “Older people don’t have their share of political control.
  •   “Particularly for poor old people, change is needed.
  •   “We [meaning the government],” he concluded, “need to support in every way we can agencies to be advocates for older people.”

While each tenet of Hess’s argument is clearly arguable, it is difficult to comprehend his leap from the need for advocacy to the proposition that the government ought to be providing it. By virtue of the fact that any definable group lacks (according to the government) … TO BE FIXED [apparently missing or mangled copy here – apparently someone’s Exacto knife got carried away before the copy hit the waxer. Here’s what appears elsewhere on the page as a pull quote: “

If the government would dare to limit the incomes of those, past a certain age, who live comfortably on the earnings of invested capital, we would have a revolution in this country in a fortnight. But by limiting the income of those whose primary means of support is their own labor, the government oppresses a class of people whose economic power is already so limited as not to constitute a significant threat, particularly when the only means of support left to the aged poor is the same government that has decreed their labor to be of no further value.

The accepted view of the welfare system in this country is that it ought to provide, in a humanitarian fashion, for the needs of those who are unable to provide for themselves. How many people would argue that it ought to prevent those who are able to provide for their own needs from doing so. Yet this is precisely what the government, in humanitarian disguise, does to many old people in this country. If you have not achieved the great American dream by age 65, you may no longer even pursue it.

The paternalistic attitudes implicit in the policy of mandatory retirement carry over to the government-funded advocacy and service systems which talk about, and provide for, the needs of the people the government has put out of work. One of the ironies of old age is that the provision of one’s needs, by and large, is taken over by the very young people for whose benefit the old are denied participation in the labor force. A major effect of the Older Americans Act of 1965 has been to empower young people – who in large measure control these service delivery systems and advocacy networks – over the lives of old people. Thus, those very same young professionals who have both the resources and recognition to change the system have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Before closing, I would like to suggest several ways in which the position of the elderly in our society might be measurable enhanced.

  • Mandatory retirement must be eliminated. It is as patently unfair to prevent a person from working on the basis of sex, color, or creed as it is to so discriminate on the basis of age. Our politicians do not retire themselves at the age of 65 and there is no reason why they ought to have the power to arbitrarily retire the rest of us.
  • Advocacy organizations for older people need to develop an independent financial base. Advisory bodies to government bureaucracies, however well-intentioned, do not change public policy. Organizations receiving federal grants to advocate for the rights of the old cannot have major impact on the political system which has created them, and which can extinguish them at will. At a time in our history when old people are becoming more and more dependent on the government economy for their very survival, then the only organizations which can be effective advocates for them are those which do not depend on the government economy for their survival.
  • If we are going to have programs designed to help older people, then older people ought to be involved in the administration of those programs. The major effect of the Older Americans Act in Colorado has been to put young people in control of programs to help old people. In response to this argument I have often been told that older people can’t maintain the pace that is required in most of these programs. My response is that maybe we need a change of pace.

If we were holding a conference about any other oppressed minority in this country, we would be talking about making the resources available to enable those people to help themselves. We would be talking about the availability of jobs. We would be talking about programs run by the people whom the programs are intended to benefit. Why should old people be so different?

At most conferences about the problems of old people, we spend far too much time talking about more cost-effective ways for the government to take care of more old people more efficiently. The measure of our humanity toward the aging is not the quality or number of services we provide to them. Rather, it is the degree to which we accept them as fellow human beings within our social and political network. The whole field of gerontology has grown up on the assumption that old people are somehow very different from the rest of us, to be studied in laboratories at a safe distance. This is a dangerous assumption. Instead of studying people who happen to be old, we study the condition of old age. In studying one attribute of a person, particularly to the exclusion of other attributes, we run the risk or losing a person and gaining an attribute.

To those of us who have never experienced it, old age remains an unknown quantity. It is presumptuous of young and middle-aged people to either encourage or enforce artificial limits on the opportunities and experiences available to people who have reached or passed an arbitrary age. Chronology is not destiny. Old people are as human as the rest of us, and are no less deserving of equal treatment than any of us.

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