We have all listened and laughed as comedians talk about the guilt that is trained into them by their Jewish or Catholic mothers, the Sisters who taught them in schools or the preachers in their churches. It is very funny. But the latest guilt trip that is being inflicted is no joke. It is being done by the wealthy and the greedy of our nation and is being perpetrated on our senior citizens!
Having been reared with the idea of self-sufficiency that is prevalent in American society, the aging person is acutely aware of the biblical definition of life spanning “three score and ten years”, we have become accustomed to the idea that that is the greatest age we can expect to be on this earth. In early times, this goal was rarely reached, especially by the female of the species. Death in childbirth was at one time the greatest threat to female existence in our rather primitive nation but, over time, the profession of medical care increased and this became less of a threat. We no longer must tramp through primeval forests in search of fierce wild animals for food, we no longer must expose our fragile bodies to the elements without warm clothing or sturdy footwear and most of us have medical care available in the event of illness or accident. Consequently, the average lifespan for Americans has soared.
Some eight decades ago, we had an agrarian society and the care of the elderly was rather simply managed. As in biblical times by the time the family patriarch became so weakened by age that they could no longer work, adult sons were prepared to return to the family home with their own wives and children. They would, in their turn and without question, assume the burden of their parents in return for assuming their assets and position in the community.
Once the nation became industrialized, families began to scatter and to live great distances apart. As the distance increased, so did the connection to the family and increasing numbers of elderly found themselves alone with no means of support. President Roosevelt was sufficiently compassionate to notice this and he instituted the present system of Social Security. This, in effect, put the government in the position of becoming one giant insurance company to whom we each paid “premiums” to insure that we would not be subjected to penury when we were no longer able to work. It was a great comfort to us to know that hunger would be an unmet stranger. Some years later, based on the enormous success of Social Security, Congress saw fit to do the same with the health care for the elderly. The premiums were collected in the same way, based on the ability of the laborer to invest in his future.
Now we are told that the dwindling of the funds in the Social Security Trust are threatening to run out and it’s all our fault! We have lived too long! We have had too many children!
This writer until recently was experiencing some twenty years of caring for a beloved man who had been diagnosed with a disabling and incurable disease which would surely take his life. This man had been a formidable character, large in size and gifted with “people sense” so that his every word bore import and whose physical strength had been seemingly super-human. As his health deteriorated and he was unable to do the tasks that he once accomplished with such ease his former life became impossible for him, and his greatest enemy became depression. Then, as he dwindled into a vitual “bag of bones”, he would plead for relief. I will never forget the look in his rheumy eys as he would ask, “Why can’t I just be helped to die? We do it for old, sick dogs, why am I denied that relief?”
Now our government is in the grip of the Fundamental Religous Right. Not only do they want to deny people the right to determine the size and the spacing of their families, but they would be aghast if someone suggested the legitimizing of “assisted suicide”. If they bothered to really read their Bible, they would see that the leaders of the early Israelites, as they grew old and lost their efficacy “went up to the mountaintop and gave up the ghost.” No mention was ever made of the actual cause of death but their “right to die” was never questioned. Just so did the heroes of the American Indians quietly slip away from their tribal homes and “disappear” as the years sapped their strength and stamina. Now, with pace-makers and other artificial mechanisms, medical science has the capability to keep our bodies alive long after any philosophical “usefulness” has ended and, many times, long after our desire to continue living.
It is simply unconsciable to force us to continue to live in suffering and debilitation while refusing us the pittances that allow us to keep body and soul together so that the wealthy can “maintain their lifestyle.” If all our many sacrifices and the triumphs of the durability and genius of mankind no longer have any meaning, the least we can ask of them is to bow to the dignity which we have so richly earned and allow us the privilege of deciding whether we would prefer to die in pain, whether from disease or hunger, or, with reason intact, to end our struggles with the compassionate medical assistance of a physician.
That is the least that should be provided to The Greatest Generation!
This writer is an octagenarian who has spent a half century working with handicapped and deprived people and advocating on their behalf while caring for her own working-class family. She spends her “Sunset Years” in writing and struggling with The System.