Drive Me to the Mortuary

Drive Me to the Mortuary

Originally published in the June 1980 issue of Senior Edition newspaper

If attendance at the Denver hearing, May 7 at the Davis Institute, on the “Colorado State Plan on Aging Services for FY 1981, 1982 and 1983″ is an indication, interest in the State’s federally assisted efforts on behalf of the older people of Colorado is abysmally low. Of the 21 people total who attended the hearing on how the State will spend the estimated 16.5 to 20+ million dollars that it will have available during the next three years, five testified. Of the five who testified, four were directors of agencies who receive some to nearly all their financial resources from Older Americans Act funds funneled to them from Washington under the aegis of the Colorado State Plan on Aging Services, administered by the Colorado Division of Services for the Aging.

Now, it is neither troublesome nor surprising that those four who testified did so; they have professional responsibilities emanating from the Older Americans Act, and an intimate knowledge of its workings and ramifications. It is troublesome and disheartening that practically no one else testified. It leads one to suspect that possibly the real beneficiaries of the Older Americans Act are those involved in the industry of providing the services to Colorado’s older population, which the Act both mandates and financially supports.

Now, this arguable is and is not the case. There are a variety of other plausible explanations for the minimal interest by Denver-area elders in the state plan for services to the aging. It could be that there was little publicity for the hearing (there was); it could be that the state’s older population is well-satisfied with efforts by the state’s aging network on their behalf, and have no beef with the type, quality, or quantity of services delivered under the Older Americans Act; it could be that the state’s older population is largely apathetic, and indifferent to efforts undertaken on their behalf.

But, regardless of the level of interest on the part of older people towards public policy and the older population, 1980 is the year it will be discussed, dissected and delineated. This summer we will have regional conferences across the state to discuss issues affecting the older population. The regional conferences will lead up to the Governor’s Conference on Aging scheduled for October 9-11 at Colorado Woman’s College in Denver, involving 700 older delegates plus service providers, area agency on aging personnel, and interested observers. Recently, the Division of Services for the Aging released a privately commissioned, 104-page report on “Policy Development and Older Persons in Colorado,” which grew out of a conference of area agency on aging personnel, senior advocates and others concerned with policies affecting older persons. Governor Lamm himself is getting into the act, and recently hired a consultant to survey the climate among service providers and leaders of the state’s “aging network,” as it is called in official aging network=ese.

The Colorado Governor’s Conference on Aging is being duplicated in some format in nearly every state of the nation during 1980 and ‘81. All of this activity is leading up to the 1981 White House Conference on Aging, November 30-December 4, 1981, where 1800 delegates from across the nation will assemble to discuss the nation’s policies toward the older population.

As much as I commend and endorse these activities, and even as I plan to participate in them, and hope that many of you will as well, I am left with an uneasy feeling that some of the most important issues will not even come up for discussion. I say this not out of a sense that they are being intentionally excluded, but rather because the Older Americans Act so pervades the aging network that it has become the context of most discussions about how to solve the problems of the older population, rather than being one piece to be put in the context of a larger puzzle.

Put a little more bluntly, the Older Americans Act has condoned and, in some cases, even institutionalized perceptions of, and attitudes toward older people that it was originally intended to discourage and, insofar as possible, eradicate. Further, in the discussion of the problems of older people, the Older Americans Act has become so pervasive that it has become difficult to suggest anything more innovative than new and larger quantities of services to fill the ever-expanding needs of the ever-expanding older population.

One of the goals of the original Older Americans Act of 1965 was to eliminate ageism in the larger society: for example, age discrimination in employment. In the current Colorado State Plan on Aging Services, as mandated by Older Americans Act regulations, the division of Services for the Aging pledges to give “preference to individuals age 60 and older for any staff positions in State and Area Agencies for which such individuals qualify.” This is not a new mandate; it has been a part of every Colorado state plan on aging as far back as I can remember. In the current “Advocacy Plan” of the state plan, employment of older persons is among four top priority issues to be addressed. The plan notes that “Some older persons…may encounter resistance to the hiring older persons or find that opportunities for part-time employment are not available.” One of the six stated “Advocacy Goals” under the current plan is that “older Coloradans shall have opportunities for employment without discrimination based on age. One of the objectives under this “Advocacy Goal” is to develop “information…directed at the general public, businessmen, Chambers of Commerce, etc., concerning the benefits of hiring older workers either part-time, full-time or on a “job -sharing’ basis.” A further objective is to “convene a Task Force on the Employment of Older Persons, including representatives from area agencies, the National Contractor, the Department of Labor and Employment, the statewide advocacy organization, and older workers, to review issues related to the employment of older workers.”

Now these are certainly laudable goals and worthwhile objectives. It might be instructive, then, to consider the record of the aging network itself – to wit, the area agencies on aging, in the employment of older persons, if only to provide an example to the larger community “concerning the benefits of hiring older workers….” For, if we are to eliminate ageism in the larger community, can there be any better place to start than in our own back yard?

Recently (on May 23 to be precise), a member of our staff (himself past 70) conducted an informal telephone survey of the 13 area agencies on aging throughout Colorado. He asked for, and received, answers to the following questions: (1) What is the age of the director of the agency? (2) What is the total number of paid employees on the agency’s staff? (3) Of the employees paid by the agency, how many are age 60 or older? From the information we gathered, we put together the follow chart:


The chart speaks rather plainly. The average of area agency on aging directors in Colorado is 31. The range of their ages extends from 23 to 38. Of 47 persons currently employed on area agency on aging staffs, including the directors, two of the employees (both, by the way, employed by the San Juan Area Agency on Aging in Durango) are over the age of 60.

Now, lest I be misinterpreted, I have nothing against younger people working in the state’s aging network. The ones with whom I am acquainted are energetic, and dedicated to their work. The point is that the ageism which the Older Americans Act purports to discourage and eradicate is so subtle and so pervasive that it permeates the very structures which the Older Americans Act has created with the avowed intention of discouraging and eradicating ageism. It is hardly credible for the aging network to try to encourage other sectors of the community to view the older community as employable when it has already made its own rather blatant judgment to the contrary.

Employment practices under the Older Americans Act are but one example of the almost unconscious ageism which permeates not only the larger society, but the aging network as well. Consider, for a moment, one other.

“Maintaining one’s independence” has become a buzzword in aging network-ese for staying out of nursing homes. The Older Americans Act, as a primary provider of services to the older population, has adopted the same terminology perhaps – and perhaps unconsciously – to mask the transference of dependence by the older population onto the service providers without whom they might be unable to avoid institutionalization.

In my view “maintaining one’s independence” is a sad misnomer for what is actually happening to many older people who have been drawn into the net of “services to the aging.” I know a number of older people who are so independent that they have no one to talk to but the representatives of the bureaucracy who arrive to service their various needs. An older woman called me a few weeks ago who was furious because she could not convince the local senior handyman service to come and cut her yard and trim her bushes. Many of the efforts we have undertaken to “maintain the independence” of older people have done little more than reinforce the stereotypes – often of older people themselves – that they are unable to maintain their resourcefulness and interdependence with the larger community. As older people begin to accept society’s view of them as frail, helpless, alienated, confused, and unable to cope, they often retreat into a lonely old age, trusting no one, and maintaining a last-ditch stand against anyone who might rob them of their “independence.”

The truth is that we are all dependent – upon one another. Why don’t we admit it? Whether it be food, housing, transportation, income, education, enjoyment or love – none of us do it alone. We all depend upon one another. I find it particularly inappropriate to put the onus of “maintaining one’s independence” upon the very people who are responsible for nurturing, housing, educating and loving the rest of us who are equally dependent, however willing or unwilling we may be to admit it.

So, if older people are dependent, you may ask, why don’t we just acknowledge it, provide them with all services to take care of their various needs, and be done with it?

It’s not that simple. This is exactly what the Older Americans Act attempts to do. In the past 15 years we have seen a proliferation of agencies to fulfill the variety of perceived needs of the older population. If you are hungry, there is an agency that can help you. If you need a place to stay, there is an agency to help you. If you need your walk shoveled, there is an agency to help you. If you are lonely, rest assured, there will soon be an agency to help you. (And behind each desk at each agency sits a young service provider eager to help you “maintain your independence.”)

The point, however, is this: The Older Americans Act does little or nothing to foster the interdependence of older people with the larger society. At a time in their lives when people are tempted to withdraw, at a time when people’s friends and loved ones are dying, at a time when the rest of society begins to view them as a burden, the Older Americans Act provides a means through which older people can withdraw, decline to seek out new relationships, and become a welcome burden upon the service providers who have a burgeoning investment in their declining health, diminishing financial resources, and increasing dependence upon the aging network.

It all comes down to one simple fact of our society, which we are, so far, individually and collectively, unwilling to deal with. Ageism. Does it surprise you that older people become what we expect them to become: withdrawn, isolated, and maintaining a lonely vigil against anyone who would deprive them of their “independence”?

Part, maybe all, of the solution to this is to change our expectations of older people, for older people to change their expectations of themselves, and to provide older people with real opportunities to fulfill ours and their altered expectations.

It is one thing to proselytize about providing older people “opportunities for employment without discrimination based on age”; it is another thing to hire them. It is one thing to decry the debilities experienced in one’s old age; it is another to cope with them and not become bitter. It is one thing to inveigh against the horrors of institutionalization; it is another to shovel your neighbor’s walk so he doesn’t have go to a nursing home because “he can no longer cope.”

The solution to the problems of older people is not to throw ever more services to fill the ever-expanding needs of the ever-growing population. Older people, as people of any age, are seeking lives worthy of living, not lives that they are capable of surviving.

I have an illustrative, albeit somewhat deranged fantasy about all of this: an older person, divorced from friends and family, living a lonely, alienated existence, cries to me on the phone – “I’ve called every agency in town, and no one will drive me to the mortuary.”

Well, the Older Americans Act can’t be expected to provide everything.

Let us begin, then, by acknowledging the dependence of all of us upon one another, regardless of our age. Then instead of fostering illusions of “maintaining one’s independence” among the old, let us, rather, begin to encourage and provide for the interdependence of older people – among themselves and with the larger society.

In this spirit, I offer the following resolutions for consideration by the Colorado Governor’s Conference on Aging in October:

* That, to encourage the employment of older persons, the state and area agencies on aging take affirmative action to employ qualified older persons in paid staff positions funded through the Older Americans Act.

* That, to ease the housing crisis among older persons, property tax rebate incentives be given to older persons who share their homes with other older persons.

* That, to encourage the continued interest of older people in education and self-improvement, all publicly supported education facilities make available educational programs to the older adult community.

* That, to counteract the view of older people as helpless, supportive social services be allocated to the larger society, including older people, based on need rather than age.

* That experimental programs be funded under the Older Americans Act which encourage older people to depend upon one another, rather than upon service providers, to find solutions to mutual problems.

* That, finally, once and for all, mandatory retirement – which demeans and disenfranchises the older population – be eliminated from both the public and private sector in Colorado, and that people be allowed to continue work based on their desire to do so, their ability to do so, and not upon the arbitrary determinant of their chronological age.

Doubtless, there are numerous, innovative solutions to the problems of older people – solutions which encourage their interdependence rather than their independence – which may not even have occurred to me. I would be pleased to hear from any of you who might like to share your ideas on this topic with our readers.

Meanwhile, let’s all look forward to the Governor’s Conference on Aging as an opportunity to explore some new directions in public policy toward the older population of Colorado.


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