The elders among us

McCarthy, Abigail

OF SEVERAL MINDS Abigail McCarthy THE ELDERS AMONG US AIDS: A DEMOGRAPHIC CHALLENGE It seems to be human nature to take perverse delight in predictions of disaster. We regale each other...

...It is possible that the growth in the older population is providential...
...But now perhaps, in the face of the new and worsening threat, we need to examine the elderly population in terms of its strengths instead of its weaknesses, as potential contributors to society rather than only as consumers of its benefits...
...Even before AIDS was seen as a significant factor, demographers were calling attention to the aging of our populations...
...Their organizations have multiplied...
...And it is grim indeed...
...Twelve percent.of Americans are over sixty-five...
...They are those to whom any society looks for creativity and productivity...
...Their business is sought after as their percentage of the buying and investing population becomes more apparent...
...Time magazine tells us that in central Africa, where AIDS is rampant in the general population, governments are just beginning to face the meaning of deaths of so many between the ages of nineteen and forty...
...Reports are that the younger workers at their side learn from, and are inspired by, the older ones...
...Retirement states like Florida see the numbers of those aged eighty-five and over tripling by the year 2000...
...Words like "plague" and "scourge" are appearing in the headlines...
...In the Western world, where those in the middle years are already straining between double burdens of caring for and educating the young and providing a life with dignity for the old, what will this pending population change mean...
...It is almost too much to take in...
...We listen with fascination each evening to broadcasters forecasting doom in sepulchral tones and leaf hastily through the morning papers for further documentation...
...Already it has been recognized, although not emphasized, that the majority of the elderly are active, self-sustaining and in good health...
...The great war losses delayed the handing on of leadership...
...These are their "best and brightest," those in whose educations their governments have invested heavily...
...Just now the demographic news centers on AIDS...
...The highest health officer in the land, Secretary of Health and Human Services Otis Bo wen, has said in no uncertain terms that if we can't find a vaccine or a cure, 138: Commonweal "we face the dreadful prospect of a worldwide death toll in the tens of millions a decade from now.'' The spread of the disease to heterosexuals has been clearly documented...
...We teeter between panic and denial...
...The middle generation had been cut off in its youth...
...Their loss could mean, at the least, a serious slowing in African development or, at worst, the destabilization of their nations...
...The focus has been on the cost for society in pensions and social security, plus the ever-increasing need for health care...
...in Europe the number is over 15 percent...
...There were the women, of course, but that is another story...
...It was the period of old men in charge of Churchill and Truman and Eisenhower, of de Gaulle, Adenauer, and the others...
...It is time for the old among us to lift their sights and to see to what they are called...
...13 March 1987: 139...
...What you're going to see in the years to come will be staggering," says Martin Coyne, Florida's president of the Federation for Aging Research...
...Surely one thing it will mean is that the burden of maintaining social cohesion if society is to cohere in the face of chaos will shift to the elderly...
...We regale each other with details, with this or that statistic, fortifying our gloomy forebodings...
...More than one million Americans are thought to be infected today and are infecting others...
...Premier Jacques Chirac of France has been quoted as saying, "in demographic terms Europe is vanishing . . . our countries will be empty...
...it is expected to account for almost 6 percent of the cases in the next few years...
...The resources of these elderly are also already being drawn on by society...
...The service industries are recruiting the elderly as part-time, even full-time workers, because they are found to be more industrious, more efficient, and less given to absenteeism than the younger workers available...
...No matter what our technological strength, we will be incapable of putting it to use...
...They are seen as "the young elderly" those aged sixty-five to eighty as contrasted to "the frail elderly" those over eighty...
...There is a pale parallel to the coming crisis in the period after World War II in Europe and to some extent in America as well...
...If, as panic grows and the ugly results of fear manifest themselves, the elderly gather and summon their political and organizational skill, their generosity, and their wisdom to address the problem, we may get through a bad patch of world history with much that is good to be handed on to the still untouched young...
...They are a political force as any politician who threatens Social Security or Medicare knows...
...Statistics like these have been cited as cause for alarm because of the accompanying decline in the birth rate...
...We have yet to concentrate on one of the most serious consequences of the projected death toll: The people dying are, and will be, for the most part, young adults and persons in the prime of life...
...The great troops of volunteers once provided by middle-class women (now largely in the work force) are being replenished by the retired...
...In this country, some industries the entertainment industry for one are already beginning to feel the effect of loss...
...This seems especially true of our reactions to predictions of demographic disaster...

Vol. 114 • March 1987 • No. 5


 
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