Myth vs. reality in our views of the elderly

In the animal kingdom, the care and protection of the young is instinctive. Some of the most vehement forms of self-defense arise in the relation of animals to their offspring. The care of the aging is quite another matter. Animals are not noted for revering their elderly. That characteristic, it seems, is one of the distinguishing features of the human condition. The idea that children should honor their fathers and mothers, as the Fifth Commandment enjoins, apparently sets us apart from the furred and the feathered.

Yet these days the air is full of concern about this relationship. As the baby boom generation matures, and as birth rates decline, one thing is certain: The proportion of elderly (65 and over) to non-elderly, not only in the United States but in many developed nations, is scheduled to double between 1950 and 2020.

The next few decades, then, will test the practicality of our views of the elderly. How can they best be cared for? Is such care a personal or a civic responsibility? How solid is the social security system? Will a shrinking working population increasingly have to support a growing population of retirees? Are the elderly a burden or a blessing?

These questions are provocative -- even, in the wrong hands, sensational -- and they have spawned a lot of rhetoric. So it's a relief to hear calm voices in this discussion, such as that of Henry J. Aaron, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland and a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

``Statistics showing that the working age population is going to suffer a heavy burden because the number of elderly is going up,'' writes Dr. Aaron in the latest issue of The Brookings Review, ``are so misleading as to verge on deception.''

Why? Because, Aaron contends, they are based on false assumptions. Mistakenly assuming a ``nation-as-a-whole'' view, one could deduce that the working population will have to forego consumption in order to support a burgeoning crowd of retirees. Instead, Aaron prefers to see the elderly as a cohort marching through time -- and putting money aside as they go. He focuses on their savings (in pension plans, for example) as an essential factor in providing the capital needed to create new jobs and keep the economy humming.

The savings of the elderly, in fact, have a two-fold benefit. ``During their working years,'' Aaron explains, ``the current elderly added to the productive capacity of the economy by their savings. They reap the benefits of this saving during retirement. Without that saving, output would have been lower than it is. The increase in output attributable to this savings just suffices to pay for the current consumption of the elderly.''

Nor is that just a nice theory: ``Recent studies of consumption opportunities,'' he notes, ``indicate that, on average, the elderly are able to maintain preretirement standards of consumption.''

Critics of this view will assert that the nation is in fact burdened with growing groups of impoverished elderly without savings to draw on. To the extent that this is true it is unacceptable, and a society that genuinely wishes to honor its parents must channel its energies into finding answers.

But here Aaron's analysis is particularly helpful. Yes, he says, there are people in that category -- especially the ``very old'' (80 and above), a subgroup which should be receiving greater attention than it is. But he is equally eager to disabuse us of the notion that old somehow means frail or disadvantaged.

``The elderly are not a peculiarly disadvantaged group,'' he writes, ``and, with certain exceptions, their problems are not very different from those of other age groups.'' He cites survey data showing that while the public thinks of the elderly as plagued with myriad problems, the elderly don't see themselves that way. When both the elderly and the non-elderly are asked whether they feel they aren't needed -- or haven't enough to keep them busy, or lack education, medical attention, friends, or clothing -- the differences between the groups are statistically insignificant. Ask both groups whether they lack job opportunities, money, or good housing, and the non-elderly say ``yes'' more often than the elderly. Only when asked about poor health, fear of crime, or loneliness do the nonelderly score lower than the elderly.

The myth, then, is that the elderly are a burden. The reality, it seems, is something quite different. ``The overwhelming majority of the aged, like most of the non-aged, are free of disabling physical impediments,'' Aaron notes. Nor are they isolated: ``More than four-fifths of the aged report that they have seen their children within the past week . . . [and] nearly half of the elderly say they help children and grandchildren with money,'' he adds.

This is not the profile of a burden. It's a profile of active, useful members of a society that needs -- maybe more than ever -- their wisdom and grace. It is to Aaron's credit that he helps dispel the myth. A Monday column

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