The Politics and Sociology of Little Old Ladies

RICHARD REEVES

December 30, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

New York. -- We reached the age, quite suddenly, this holiday season when the family routine began to include visits to nursing homes. It was one of those moments, like a wedding or the birth of the first child, when you realize your life will never be the same again.

In the last month of 1992, two women in our family -- a mother and an aunt, one 79 years old, the other one 92, both widowed decades ago -- decided (or their doctors did) that they could not make it alone any more in their small Manhattan apartments. Neither would consider moving in with us or other ''children.'' They were too proud and, truthfully, we were all making offers we prayed would not be accepted.

So, shuttling between the Upper West Side in Manhattan and Riverdale in the Bronx, we became matriculating students in the morality and economics of aging in America at the end of the 20th century. I am doing homework on the implications of this change in our thinking and living -- in terms of public policy, of private interests and of personal trauma in a time when my people, in my family and in my nation, are living longer, and living long beyond their productive years.

I begin with public policy and the numbers. Both of these great ladies are blessed with pensions earned by their late husbands. With Social Security, they have total incomes in the $25,000-a-year range and total assets of between $50,000 and $100,000. They are obviously not rich, but they are far from being poverty-stricken or welfare cases -- at least for the next couple of years.

The nursing homes are fine as these things go. The annual bill for one will be close to $80,000 a year, about half that for the other. The way it works is that the pensions and Social Security payments are turned over to the nursing homes. My mother's and aunt's personal assets will be used to make up the difference between that income and the homes' charges -- until those assets are used up, at which point Medicare will make up the difference.

So, multiplying these two cases by millions, this is part of a massive and growing transfer of wealth from citizens and government to the health-care industry. That is a matter of government choice in a country that chooses not to provide adequate resources to such other concerns as pre-natal care, early child development, child care in general or public education. We consciously, as a matter of public policy, choose the old over the young.

Privately, in my family, we do a certain amount of intergenerational kidding about inheritance: ''Yeah, kid, if you don't do what I tell you to do, you're out of the will.'' Now, I realize there is going to be no will. In our families -- my wife's and mine -- there is not all that much money to begin with, but whatever money there is will be going to health care, not to ''the children.''

That's all part of the modern American screwing of the young. Kids pay for their own higher educations with loans. They will have to pay the national debt run up by old men named Reagan and Bush, and, I realize now, they will never get the house and other assets either -- first because parents are living longer, or getting property-tax breaks to keep houses too big for their needs and, finally, turning those houses over to pay for care in the last years of life.

(Property can be transferred, of course, to children, to trusts and to corporations before older owners go into nursing homes or hospitals. But most people, especially middle-class people of limited financial education, don't plan ahead that way, and after a certain point it is against the law to transfer property to avoid using it for nursing-home or hospital costs.)

Now, about me personally. Walking through nursing homes between Christmas and New Year's this year, I am, like many before me, shocked and depressed. This is a life?

The people I saw don't talk to each other -- even in nursing homes in the top rank. (I know there are thousands of smelly

hell-holes out there, warehouses for the economically useless.) They sit staring straight ahead -- some periodically yelling nonsense -- watching, I suppose, a personal movie of their own lives, reliving the good and the bad.

Do I want to end up that way? No! But perhaps I will. At a family Easter dinner a few years ago we all talked smugly about ''living wills'' and said we would never want extraordinary measures to keep us alive. After a while, the oldest woman at the table, in her 80s, said: ''You're all crazy. You'll want everything you can get to hang in there as long as possible -- just like I do now.''

We had a merry Christmas this year, but I have a feeling that I will spend a great deal of time thinking about these things in a more sobering new year.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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