The Old Folks Are Coming! The Old Folks Are Coming!

by F.R. Duplantier

Because my parents married late in life, my grandparents were already quite elderly when I was born. By the time I reached the age of six, they were gone. But not until I was older, and able to see what a special part their grandparents played in the lives of my school-age friends, did I begin to sense my deprivation, and to feel profoundly cheated. Like my parents, I too married late. Now, with my father deceased, it pains me to realize that my two young daughters will never have the chance to get to know him, and I feel a sense of urgency about their relationships with their remaining grandparents.

Recently, while reading a U.S. Department of Commerce report entitled Aging in the Third World, I had to keep reminding myself that the “older populations” to which author Kevin Kinsella refers are, in reality, grandparents. What made this obvious fact so difficult to bear in mind was a mass of facts, figures, and analysis demonstrating that — despite their years of hard work and sacrifice on our behalf, and the warmth and wisdom they offer us in abundance — the elderly are often seen as an insufferable burden on society. In fact, as I read about them, they didn’t seem like human beings at all, but more like rodents. And, though the subject was never mentioned, even euphemistically, the conclusion toward which the “documentation” moves inexorably is that the only solution may be extermination of the pests.

Big Brother Versus Granny
Over several decades, the power of government has been used to weaken the power of the family; then, with each successful attack, recommendations are issued which increase the power of government to solve the problems that government created. Tax policies discriminate against families, legislation encourages “alternate” life-styles, and traditional morality is subjected to assault. Aging in the Third World, the Department of Commerce report, is a case in point. The thrust of the report is that the population of the world is getting older — due to longer life spans and lower birthrates — and that a larger and larger elderly population is being supported by a smaller and smaller working-age population. What’s the answer? Society has got to do something about these old people!

Even if one accepts the premise that an increase in the elderly component of world population is a problem to be rectified, one would have to bend over backwards, as does the report’s author, to fail to recognize the obvious solution. After all, as Kinsella, himself, acknowledges, “Population aging . . . is primarily determined by fertility (birth) rates, and secondarily by mortality (death) rates, so that populations with high fertility tend to have low proportions of older persons and vice versa”(p. 5). If the population is getting older primarily because birthrates are declining, why not do something to encourage an increase in birthrates — or at least, agree to stop encouraging their decline? Why not recognize, and admit, that birth control policies inspired and enforced by government are the major cause of declining birthrates worldwide (along with all the increased financial disincentives for having children and raising families)? Needless to say, this option is never considered.

The long and the short of it is that governments, by promoting contraception, sterilization and the killing of unborn babies, have reduced birthrates to such an extent that they’ve upset the balance between young and old; they now intend to use this “created” imbalance to legitimize the killing of the elderly (euthanasia).

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
A determination to address the symptoms rather than the disease is manifest throughout the report. On page one, for instance, the author notes that “significant emigration of young and working-age adults” has contributed to the aging of the population in the Caribbean, but fails to mention what effect governmental economic policies have had on the nations in the region, or the possibility that thriving free markets back home might stall or reverse this drain of human resources. On page 7, Kinsella observes that there is concern that “the undisputed trend toward more urbanized societies will also lead to serious tensions and conflicts among generations.” Seemingly he is oblivious to the fact that such tensions are inevitably fomented when governments compel one generation to live at the expense of another. Whether or not “traditional support systems for the aged will weaken in the face of changing social structures” is another concern. Kinsella, ignores the fact that governments have worked to change social structures and weaken “traditional support systems,” thereby increasing dependence upon government! Will “serious tensions” result and “traditional support systems” weaken? You bet they will. That’s the whole idea! Kinsella likewise notes that “urban housing may be poorly suited to traditional extended-family arrangements,” as though this phenomenon were also purely accidental. It is not. It is the result of forethought on the part of social engineers.

Some of the author’s observations appear ridiculously self-evident. One states that “rapid urbanization in developing countries has had a more deleterious effect on urban than on rural elderly”(p.9). Another survey from Thailand shows that “the morbidity level of the elderly . . . is significantly higher than the national average” (p. 14). His interpretation of percentages is also frequently confused, if not intentionally distorted. He notes that, in the United States, “the average number of years of life remaining at age 65 increased 15 percent (from 14.3 to 16.4 years) during the period 1960-80, while life expectancy at birth increased only 6 percent during the same period” (p. 11). This unequal comparison is apparently calculated to provoke gerontophobia, among those who ignore the fact that the latter percentage applies to a much larger figure.

Mining the same vein, Kinsella notes that, as societies develop, the major cause of death among the elderly shifts from infectious and parasitic diseases to chronic ones and warns of the “rapidly escalating health costs” associated with cardiovascular disease, cancer and the “considerable resources for proper care” required by diabetics (p. 13).

Surveillance Systems
Somehow it is not very comforting to learn that the United Nations Statistical Office “has created a statistical and informational data base designed to assist nations in answering policy-related questions about the need for legislation and services.” According to the report, “this data base will be of great use in studying age differences in disability and in providing a foundation for projecting disability burdens among future older populations”(p. 15). Needless to say, “the projected increases in absolute numbers of disabled individuals are alarming in terms of future service and care requirements” (p. 16). Maybe it was a poor choice of words, but, when Kinsella calls for the development of “surveillance systems . . . to evaluate the effects of primary care actions aimed at health promotion and risk prevention” (p. 16), one gets the eerie feeling that maybe the proposed “surveillance” is laying the groundwork for eventual coercion (i.e., euthanasia) by government population planners and health care rationers.

Note that Kinsella refers to projected increases in “absolute numbers” of disabled individuals; throughout the report, he switches back and forth from percentages to absolute numbers, depending upon which of the two is more likely to cause consternation. In a section entitled “Older Women Especially Apt to be Widowed,” in which Kinsella concedes that the most important reason for gender disparity in widowhood “is simply that women live longer on average than men,” he states: “Available trend data since 1970 for countries in this report indicate that female proportions widowed were more likely to decline than to increase or remain the same.” Nevertheless, “absolute numbers of older widowed women were increasing rapidly” (p. 18). Concludes Kinsella: “Thus, the issue in developing countries appears to be one of numbers, not proportions.” In short, if the percentages aren’t scary enough, use the numbers!

In a section on housing and long-term care for the elderly, Kinsella observes: “The essential functions that planned housing and institutions serve in developed countries are usually served by the family in developing nations” (p. 19). Would it not have been more accurate, at least in the interests of proper chronology, to reverse the formula, to wit: “The essential functions served by the family in developing nations are usually (often?) served by planned housing and institutions in developed countries?” In the same paragraph, he notes that, in developing countries, “a vast majority of living and care arrangements for older persons are still in the domain of �normal’ life.” The word normal is the only single word in the entire 28-page report that is set off by quotation marks, the visual correlative of a snicker. Why this gratuitous swipe at normalcy?

In his section “Social Support of the Elderly,” Kinsella says: “One aspect of socio-economic development that national planners now or will soon face is determining the kinds of social support services that growing older populations require, and the cost/benefit tradeoffs that must be made. . . . Such planning requires difficult choices. . . . To prudently weigh the economic considerations, attention must first be given to changing societal age structures and worker/nonworker ratios. . . .” (p.26). These ratios, according to Kinsella, “alert policymakers to the potential for increased financial burdens on future working-age populations.”

Grandparent Glut?
Eventually, the “continued declines in birth rates will effect a change in the age dependency structure of a large majority of developing countries.” At that time, Kinsella says, “nations will grapple with issues involving the allocation of scarce resources among young and old” (p.27). In other words, one of these days somebody is going to have to be thrown out of the lifeboat. According to a study quoted by Kinsella, only a “catastrophic rise in adult mortality” will avert disaster.

Frankly, the prospect of an increase in the elderly population doesn’t trouble me. It just means that there’ll be more grandparents to go around. If a glut of grandparents does develop, we’ll just have to increase the fertility rate, won’t we? I’m willing to do my part. How about you?

© 1991 F.R. Duplantier

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