As a child in England, I was taught that Eskimos in North America put their old people on ice floes to die. Pulled them 'way out on a sled, then turned their backs and left them behind.
Last month a woman drove her 82-year-old father several hundred miles from home and dumped him outside the men's room at a dog-racing track in Post Falls, Idaho. He was found there, strapped to a wheelchair and holding a bag of diapers. On his baseball cap were the ironic words: ''Proud to be an American.''
Alzheimer's disease made John Kingery oblivious of his name or surroundings, but local officials traced him to a Portland, Oregon, nursing home where he had lived for 18 months before his daughter abruptly removed him and abandoned him in another state.
The incident stirs outrage at the daughter and shame for a society that devalues its elderly so callously. How can a daughter be so insensitive? Why is a senile man trashed because he's difficult and no longer socially acceptable? Rosalie Abrams, head of the Maryland Office on Aging calls it, quite simply, ''disgraceful!'' She's checking to see if existing legislation covers this kind of incident.
John Kingery is a case of what's been called ''granny dumping.'' By one estimate, as many as 70,000 old folk were dropped off at hospital emergency rooms last year.
''We've had elder abuse for years but the numbers were small,'' says Barbara Silverstone, co-author of ''You and Your Aging Parent.'' She contends that tales of senior abuse have been exaggerated, but acknowledges there were far fewer cases 10 years ago than now. Most incidents occur between elderly spouses. This was abuse by a daughter.
The issue is not just a moral problem, nor is it served with a legal solution. It requires greater response than blame and retribution. The father is not the only victim, nor is the daughter the only villain. She is a victim, too.
We don't know much about Sue Gifford, the daughter, or what led to her desperate behavior. Chances are, it wasn't evil motivation. It was more likely difficulty coping with what had become an insurmountable struggle.
''We see families who are just beyond their ability to care for their elderly person. They bring them here and, often in a very caring way, they break down and say 'please help me','' says Dr. Gabe Cohen, head of the Johns Hopkins Hospital emergency services. ''They are at their wit's end.''
All over the U.S. children struggle to care for dependent elderly parents. Most aren't youngsters but people in their 60s and older, tussling with their own aging as they try to help parents who increasingly live to age 100 and beyond. Or they're middle-aged and juggling layers of generational responsibilities. Sometimes, especially in hard times, their coping ability breaks down.
''It's a sign of the times. We're seeing dependent people at both ends of the life cycle being increasingly abused and neglected,'' says Ms. Silverstone, who runs a social-service agency in New York. Recession, unemployment, increasing poverty and cutbacks in social services all combine to exacerbate family stresses. Child abuse has increased dramatically, for the same reasons.
Relatives need support to care for an impaired parent, just as many do to care for dependent children. They need better nursing-home services, they need respite services for themselves, they need special day-care facilities, they need emotional support and they may need financial help. The kind of assistance they require is rarely covered by insurance, nor is it easily found. At times of dire stress, many are left to their own resources.
Unless there's a deeper understanding of the problem followed by the creation of new services, the phenomenon will get worse. In a few years, John Kingery stories will no longer make news. The number of Americans over 65 will double by the year 2030; already, the fastest growing segment is over 85.
''We've never had such an old population before and we don't really know what the future incidence of abuse may be,'' says Ms. Abrams. ''Alzheimer's afflicts the very old and as that number grows, as many as 40 percent may become dependent.''
4 Their daughters, like Sue Gifford, need a break.
Ghita Levine writes frequently on issues of aging.