An Answer to Old Age

An Answer to Old Age

by Burton S. Blumert by Burton S. Blumert

I know I’ve had too much when the Thunderbird Industrial Red the host bought at $4 per gallon begins to taste like a rare French Bordeaux.

Like most cocktail receptions, the idle chatter around me was typical, but that all changed when the young woman smiled and said, with obvious respect and affection,

"Mr. Blumert, I’m so pleased to see that you’re still around."

When she realized her unfortunate choice of words, the poor thing was horror stricken and ready to die on the spot.

Those close by pretended they’d heard nothing, and I should have followed their lead, but not me. I had to save the day,

"Well, I really died two years ago, but I haven’t had the good sense to lay down."

Nobody laughed and I was astonished to see my wife able to roll her eyes with such intensity.

This was not the first occasion where my advancing years had caused discomfort for others.

There was the time I showed up a day early for a dinner party. (The hostess was very kind about the mix-up and insisted upon fixing me a ham and cheese sandwich.)

My wife says that I have worn the story out, retelling it to the same people at 100 dinner parties ever since.

She exaggerates, and fails to mention that these folks are also ageing, that they don’t remember much, and that they laugh each time I tell the story as though it were the first.

If you need hard evidence that not everybody is loving and patient with the aged, observe how abrupt and mean-spirited some family members become as Grandpa’s hearing fails. (When I lost patience with my own father’s refusal to use a hearing aid, he responded, "So you think I’m deaf, huh? Well, drop a coin and see who’s first to hear it hit the floor.")

Some sociologists believe that you learn a great deal about a culture by examining their attitudes towards the aged. Some societies come out better than others, but, I assure you, the elderly have a tough time of it in EVERY society.

It doesn’t matter how lofty the accomplishments of a person’s life, if they live long enough, eventually, they will encounter disrespect.

Worse, live into your 90’s and you run the risk of outright cruelty at the hands of the “low-level” types who comprise the work force in many "retirement" institutions.

Even those expensive, "Assisted Living Residences" that look like a country club hide dirty little secrets of cruelties visited upon helpless old folk.

All of which set me to thinking about how different societies in different times dealt with their old and sick.

In an earlier, more gracious time, 19th century American composer Stephen Foster (1826—1864) sentimentalized about, "The Old Folks at Home":

Way down upon de Swanee ribber, Far, far away, Dere’s wha my heart is turning ebber, Dere’s wha de old folks stay.

All up and down de whole creation, Sadly I roam, Still longing for de old plantation, And for de old folks at home.

Through the 19th century in America, the burden of caring for the elderly was a family matter. For those without family support, society looked to charity for assistance. The neighborhood church was usually the focal point for such help.

In the early years of the 20th century, in many American cities, the churches began to provide institutional support for the elderly. Almost every religious denomination had its version of a "Home For the Aged."

A close friend was a career social worker with Catholic Family Services in the San Francisco Bay area. He was one of those tireless professionals who genuinely helped real folks dealing with life’s real problems.

One of Bill’s fellow workers called him, " A priest without collar or credential for those who didn’t attend a regular church."

During the 1980s things changed. It seemed like the private charities were having "jurisdictional" problems with various government agencies. The "private sector " social workers didn’t have a chance and they were losing ground to the government "commissars" by the minute.

It wasn’t much later that Bill quit social work. I recall his comment that, "when the elderly were designated as ‘Senior CITIZENS’, their lives were doomed to domination by the state, just as what happened to the u2018citizens’ during the French Revolution." (Everybody was called, "citizen," even as your head was lopped off.)

A visit to Google and the San Francisco phone books reveal that the Private Sector of charities, although shrunken, still exist and do good work, BUT the bloated leviathan of state agencies will smother them until they are extinct.

There are optimists out there who look to advances in science and medicine to alleviate the pain and misery of being old. I wish I could share the view that the market, through science, will create "Golden Years" for the elderly, but I wouldn’t bet a dime on it. Not as long as the bureaucrats infect the entire system.

Well, is there anywhere in the world where the old are revered and treated with respect? I don’t think so.

The Chinese are supposed to dote on their aged. Maybe they did a few dynasties ago, but I fear they are just as callous with the aged as their occidental counterparts. At least that’s the way it seems in San Francisco.

I doubt if anybody really believes that the Eskimos abandon their elderly on a chunk of ice. It’s a heartless piece of mythology, but at the center of it, is there an underlying integrity?

After all, the folks they deposit on the ice are old, unproductive, sick, and not long for this world. It seems pointless to expend scarce resources on them. Resources that can be better used elsewhere. (Or so it seemed when I was a Randian, and a young one at that!)

"Your piece is a downer, Blumert," chided my wife. "People don’t want to hear about getting old, getting sick and dying. Lighten up, or Rockwell will u2018deep-six’ it.

"Don’t forget he wouldn’t take your calls for three months after that article you did on u2018The Inca Indians and Their Influence on Suicide in the West.’"

Well, as I always say, "When reality is too grim, try fiction."

In the 1937 Frank Capra film, Lost Horizon, the world was introduced to Shangri-La.

Robert Conway, played by Ronald Colman, leads a group of plane crash survivors from certain death in the frigid mountains of Tibet to a perfect valley called Shangri-La.

Shangri-La is paradise, but eventually we learn that the place has its problems. I won’t spoil the movie for you by telling everything, but I can say that "Lost Horizon" presents the best fictional example of a society dealing with ageing by putting it on "hold."

It just so happens that my favorite Star Trek episode, The Menagerie, Episode 16, Season 1, takes a different approach. This Gene Roddenberry masterpiece solves the problem of ageing and other disasters through a combination of science and mysticism.

In "The Menagerie," former Enterprise Captain Christopher Pike is severely injured from exposure to delta rays. The Captain’s mind is prisoner to his broken body.

Mr. Spock had served under Pike for many years and at the risk of being charged with mutiny, is determined to bring Pike to Talos 4, a planet off-limits to Federation spacecraft.

The Talosians, after losing a war several thousand years earlier, developed illusion and telepathy to a remarkable degree.

The plot is intricate, but Spock knows that the Talosians have the ability through illusion to put Captain Pike "back together."

The court martial committee exonerates Mr. Spock and Captain Pike is left on Telos, finally free of his disfigured body, to live a perfect life of illusion.

Good science fiction puts me in a reflective mood. What would a life of illusion on Telos be like, I wondered?

My reverie was penetrated by my wife’s pronouncement that,

"There are two people at the front door asking for Blumert. They look like Eskimos and are talking about a reservation you have somewhere in the Bering Sea. What’s that all about? And, what shall I tell them?"

It’s clear that I have enemies on the "Eskimo Ice-Floe Selection Committee." Tell them I’ve already booked the Motel 6 in Shangri-La and to buzz-off.