Better days for older Americans

The report on last year's White House Conference on Aging is out, and the three-volume document should help erase many of the prevalent myths about the elderly in US society--even as it should serve as a spur to lawmakers and the general public not to ignore the plight of those older persons in genuine need.

Some elderly persons will no doubt find the report ''tainted,'' since the Reagan administration was accused of manipulating the conference to reflect its own conservative political leanings. But the general conclusions of the report seem not inconsistent with recent academic studies. As a group, according to the report, older Americans are ''the wealthiest, best fed, best housed, healthiest, most self-reliant older population in our history.'' Just take the national poverty level: by the late 1970s, only 8 percent or so of older Americans were below that line, compared to 27 percent at the end of the 1950s.

That stands as a remarkable achievement when one considers the great concern about older persons back in the mid-1930s, when many retired Americans saw their homes and savings wiped out by depression, with little or no financial hope ahead of them. The establishment of the US social security system has to a large extent mitigated that concern.

In this context, the new report is on target in concentrating on keeping the social security system solvent and calling for an end of forced retirement. Both objectives warrant support. Unfortunately, the report did not spell out any specific solutions, thus leaving the challenge with the national commission on social security that will issue its report after this year's congressional elections.

Perhaps that is only fair. Given the political clout of older Americans (over half of whom vote), lawmakers are likely to find at least interim solutions ensuring that present recipients will receive benefits. The real crunch will come over protecting the system's solvency--as well as providing equitable benefits in relation to what is contributed in taxes--for beneficiaries at the end of this century, when the ratio of workers to retired persons will have shrunk.

Meantime, it is good to be reminded once again that many of the assumptions about the elderly as a group are not true. Studies have shown that between 1970 and 1978 per capita income was higher for the nation's 26 million elderly than it was for the remainder of the population. During this period it grew 26 percent, compared to 19 percent for the general population.

Precisely because of the general well-being of the aged, therefore, lawmakers ought to be particularly sensitive to those older persons who are in genuine need. Practical steps should be taken to help these individuals. Action is needed to ensure better regulation of nursing homes, end age discrimination in jobs, and provide appropriate and inexpensive health care (particularly home care).

The nation would be remiss in overlooking the needs of those who have contributed over the years to its well-being.

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