The Aging of Aquarius

In 1969, a young history professor named Theodore Roszak published his first groundbreaking book: "The Making of a Counter Culture." Roszak was one of the first to recognize as a distinctive phenomenon the sixties youth movement. Thirty years later, Roszak has written a new book, America the Wise, in which he speculates about the effects of the "new aging" and greater longevity on American society as the cohort he chronicled thirty years ago approaches retirement age. What follows is a representative excerpt.In the years ahead, an increasing number of us will be living decades longer than our parents or grandparents. Think of all those extra years of life as a resource -- a cultural and spiritual resource reclaimed from death by advances in public health and medical science in the same way the Dutch reclaim fertile land from the waste of the sea. During any one of those years, somebody who no longer has to worry about raising a family, pleasing a boss or earning more money will have the chance to join with others in building a compassionate society where people can think deep thoughts, create beauty, study nature, teach the young to worship what they hold sacred, and care for one another. Once we realize that, we should have no difficulty understanding the most important fact about the longevity revolution. It has given the baby boomers now in their 50s -- the remarkable generation I wrote about thirty years ago in The Making of a Counter Culture -- a chance to do great good against great odds. Many of the people we think of as "senior citizens" at the turn of the twenty-first century (what I shall call the middle old -- people now in their 60s and 70s -- and the senior old -- those 80 to 100 plus) have retired into an empty space filled with card games or love-boat cruises. That is retirement as we have known it: a withdrawal into inconsequentiality. There are commercial forces at work that would delight in keeping things just that trivial and profitable. This current generation of seniors -- especially those in the middle-old range who have put aside some money -- is already growing restless with a life limited to the card table and the golf course. As a sign of significant change, a distinctive new occupation has already grown up around that restlessness. It is called "volunteer vacationing." Volunteer work has long been seen as a province of the elderly, whether as museum docents or hospital candy stripers. But the volunteering involved in these vacations is of a wholly different order. Indeed, the term "vacation" obscures the reality. This is actually rigorous public service, but with a novel twist. These public servants pay to work. They often lay out a good deal of their own money to cover the cost of transport, lodging, food and care. Environmental organizations like Earthwatch Institute and the National Audubon Society, as well as government agencies like the US Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, have been making the most extensive use of senior volunteers. They now organize vacations that allow participants to do significant conservation work: repairing public facilities in wilderness areas, building trails, taking censuses of wildlife, planting and restoring parks. Sometimes the effort includes assisting on digs to find and catalogue fossil remains or preserve native habitats.There are also inner-city vacations, like those of Habitat for Humanity, whose purpose is to build homes for the poor, and Third World vacations that demand substantial stamina. The American Hiking Society, for example, advertises vacations that involve "hard, manual labor in rugged, remote locations, many at high altitudes." Fortunately for older participants, the assignments are not restricted to heavy lifting. There are other opportunities for teachers, technicians, cooks, housekeepers, child-minders and gofers. But whether the volunteers are providing brains or brawn, clearly the satisfaction in vacations like these is very different from that of strolling the Champs-Elysees.The volunteer task everybody associates most readily with retirement is caregiving. Whether in hospitals, nursing homes or private homes, seniors can be found taking care of all those who are forced into dependency, including one another. Among the American Association of Retired Persons' most successful efforts is its Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, which works in nursing homes protecting the rights of frail elderly. But in effect, many baby boomers approaching retirement are already in training to take up society's caring imperative. They, especially the women, are being schooled in coping and kindness long before they themselves are ready to retire. When their retirement does arrive, many women of the baby-boom generation will have emerged from one of the 25 million American homes that have been taking care of an elderly relative.The AARP estimates that three-quarters of the people looking after a sick or disabled family member in those households are women; others place the figure at 90 percent. Women have become the default caregivers of our society; they have been thrown into that role and forced to make the best of it. Theirs has been called the "sandwiched" life. No sooner do they finish raising their children than their ailing parents move in for care. As of the early nineties, the average age of women taking care of their parents was 57; more than one-third were over 65 and were destined to spend more of their lives "parenting" their parents than they had spent caring for their children.Imagine for a moment women in their 50s and 60s saddled with this role for most of the rest of their lives. When anti-entitlements critics step forward presuming to speak for "our children," this is what makes their claim ring so hollow. Far from being helpless babes in arms, many of those "children" are themselves on the brink of retirement. And many more are already so burdened with home care that the last thing they want is to be "saved" from the "entitlements monster." As women demand help with this responsibility, our society will in a sense become more "feminized" in its values. When enough people find themselves overloaded by prevailing home care arrangements, there will have to be changes. This is especially bound to be the case with assertive women who have been even remotely touched by feminist values. They could become a dominant electoral factor as politicians come to recognize where the votes are. As a matter of workaday practicality, the women's vote is a welfare-state vote. Even archconservatives have had to face up to the gender gap. In the name of family values, women demand more public money for schools, daycare, safe streets, food inspection. As if by cultural default in what has long been a "man's world," women care about these realities of everyday life and vote for them. Ideology will not answer their needs. Their vote is a clear cry for help.Nursing homes are already an issue. The nursing home scandals of the eighties emerged as a bellwether issue in senior politics. The problem came to public awareness in 1985, when the media and Congressional investigators revealed the amount of elder abuse that was taking place in the cheap, unprofessional facilities many families were forced to use. The effort to improve long-term institutional care and make it affordable continues. When in 1992 budget-balancing conservatives in Congress began talking about measures to place a lien on the family home to pay for long-term care, the proposal was quickly dropped as unacceptable -- and indeed morally reprehensible.Full-time, full-scale home care, a burden that is already the blight of many women's lives, is bound to become just as urgent an issue as women find themselves sinking ever deeper into the harsh responsibilities that come with longevity. They will demand relief -- and they will get it. With more money allocated for elder care, the caregiving sector of the economy will expand. In turn, caring will become a prominent occupation, even a profession. There are already young people specializing in elder care as gerontological doctors, nurses and counselors. It is not difficult to imagine this turning into a growth industry, a category of service employment that cannot be sent offshore or technologically eliminated. In the twenty-first century, geriatric care may take the place of high-tech as the unfolding frontier of opportunity.Caregiving is not simply a family affair, nor can it be restricted to a profession. As medical science keeps more sick people alive, caring has turned into a spreading, grassroots feature of our society. It is already transforming neighborhoods, since it is neighbors who often have to intervene in the lives of the seriously ill. Much of this contact is casual and private -- a simple understanding between friends that escapes public visibility -- but the National Alliance for Caregiving estimates that more than 22 million households are now caring for neighbors as well as relatives. One federally funded effort called Gatekeepers enlists mail carriers and delivery drivers to learn about the neighborhoods they regularly visit, especially the shut-ins and the elderly who may need their help. They become part of a watchful mobile network of caregivers. Another rough measure: The National Federation of Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers, which trains and supports those who reach out to neighbors, has grown since the mid-eighties from twenty-five local chapters to more than 1,200. An important part of that increase has to do with the AIDS crisis in the gay community, many of whose members are taking on the role of traditional families for one another. That example has been appropriated for other forms of care, including elder care.Increasingly, the basic units for elder care, as well as the care of the homebound sick, are the apartment complexes and condos where people find themselves living as age and illness descend upon them. With a few modest arrangements -- a doorman to carry groceries, a visiting nurse, some taxi service, a few neighborhood children to run errands -- people often prefer to "age in place." The AARP has discovered that our once-footloose baby-boom population has begun to put down roots. Almost half the country's older population has lived in the same place for more than twenty years. Researchers have come up with a quaint formal name for such an arrangement -- NORCs: naturally occurring retirement communities. NORCs may become as characteristic of a longevous society as the suburbs were of the early lives of the boomers. But while suburbs isolated residents from one another and emphasized high consumption, NORCs and caring neighborhoods unite people and emphasize compassion.When President Lyndon Johnson was formulating Medicare in the sixties, he also sought to create an Office of Aging at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The office would have overseen seniors serving in hospitals as medical aides. The American Medical Association thought this was a bad idea and vetoed it. The office was instead transformed into a little-known program called Serve and Enrich Retirement by Volunteer Experience (SERVE), which in turn led to the 1969 creation of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP).RSVP is a little-publicized, vastly underfunded operation that continues to perform scores of vital services. In the mid-nineties, more than half a million seniors in RSVP projects served tens of thousands of sites across the country. They tutored in schools, assisted in clinics and courts, did some environmental watchdogging, participated in rehabilitation and telephone resource programs, served as companions for shut-in elders and took part in intergenerational projects. The contribution made by the Senior Companion Program is particularly valuable. In the mid-nineties, 12,000 volunteers helped more than 30,000 frail elders to live independently. With nursing home costs running as high as $35,000 a year, the estimated value of the companion service was $150 million.Marc Freedman, writing in The American Prospect, regards RSVP as a "hidden triumph" of the Johnson Great Society. He calls this bare-bones beginning "the aging opportunity" and asks, Why not expand it in all directions as a comprehensive, well-funded national service program? He believes that with enough money behind it, RSVP -- and similar state and local programs -- could turn the retired into the "new trustees of civic life." The possibilities are vast. Retired teachers could become mentors, retired physicians could become medical counselors, retired lawyers could become legal aides available for all the problems people have with employers, landlords and welfare and entitlement programs. There is a frontier of work and service waiting to be staked out by retired Americans.Conservatives like to see volunteerism as an alternative to government. But the two could work in tandem, exchanging resources and inspiration. Government could empower the Third Sector -- volunteer work outside the marketplace, either by individuals or through nonprofit organizations -- often in very simple ways. For example, it could channel what is now welfare money through nonprofit and voluntary organizations to allow them to expand their work forces in the community. It could create a "shadow wage" that allows tax deductions for the value of the time one contributes to volunteer work.Not all retired people are willing and able to work for nothing, of course. Several million Social Security recipients must scramble to supplement their meager government stipend. What they find are usually catch-as-catch-can part-time jobs at meager pay. It would clearly make far greater sense to pay retirees to work at something they know or to assume long-term caregiving responsibilities for members of their own generation. But by far the nearest, least bureaucratic way to achieve that goal is simply to give them higher Social Security payments so they will be free to volunteer. If the senior entitlements should become the model for a guaranteed annual income allied to a growing Third Sector, we would have the basis for a mature industrial economy in America. Such a compassionate economy would lend ballast to our otherwise turbulent marketplace. It would put retired skills to work. It would provide entry-level jobs for the otherwise unemployable young. It would put purchasing power in the hands of those who otherwise have nothing to spend. It would guarantee employment of last resort for all those who lose their jobs owing to global competition. As the pioneers of a robust Third Sector in the United States, the retiring boomers would be building a solid economic foundation for entitlements policy and the elder culture that rests upon it. Beyond protecting their own immediate interests in the entitlements debate, they would become the primary defenders of humane social values for all their more vulnerable fellow citizens, beginning with those who most clearly share the vulnerability of the elderly: the nation's children. It should be the highest priority on the senior political agenda to see the same right to a decent subsistence and full medical care granted to the young as to the old. In one way or another, every budget-cutting attack on programs created to help the indigent, the disabled and the down and out impinges upon entitlements. Either the cost of entitlements is used to justify diminishing support to the needy, or continued funding of welfare programs for the needy is used to justify cutting entitlements. As part of the conservative backlash, Congressional leaders have been doing all they can to confuse "welfare" (temporary assistance to the unemployed and unemployable) with "welfare state" (Social Security and Medicare) in the public mind, two very different areas of policy that have different histories and goals. The aim of such deliberate obfuscation is to create the impression that seniors are living off "welfare" and should be ashamed to accept handouts. The very concept of "entitlement" is being called into question, as if to ask: Is anybody entitled to anything they did not earn in the marketplace? In the seventies, mordant critics spoke of the baby boomers as the "me" generation, as if selfishness had previously been an unknown vice. When they leveled the charge, it was never clear what generation they had in mind as the appropriate ethical baseline. But if that accusation was ever true, the dynamics of the longevity revolution are bound to lay it to rest. Before they leave the stage of history, America's baby boomers, the first generation to face up to the challenge of creating an economics of permanence, may translate "me" into "we."This article originally appeared in The Nation.


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