Monday, September 27, 2010

A tongue lashing on our "institutionalized and isolated elderly"

On Sunday, Sept. 26, I posted, on my “Major Issues” blog (see my Blogger Profile) some commentary on an article by Kwame Anthony Appiah in the Washington Post, where he analyzes what future generations will condemn us for. Point 3, about “the institutionalized and isolated elderly,” needs more comment. Appiah writes, after noting that 14000 elderly people died in France in 2003 during the massive early August heat wave, apparently alone or in institutions while their adult kids were vacationing, “ Is this what Western modernity amounts to -- societies that feel no filial obligations to their inconvenient elders?” No wonder it can incur wrath sometimes..

While Appiah notes that we have a world where nearly every adult has to work, usually in a different city, and has to “make it on his own”, it’s true that demographics – smaller families and the perceived cultural opportunities besides or superseding raising children – have an effect. So do modern notions of the “autonomy of self” – and the pattern of intermittent, transitory and partial or “functionable” intimacy encouraged by online social networking culture. That works well in a society where people are more “introverted” and tend to externalize themselves into work and expression (and who do not want relationships forced upon them by the needs of others, until they “choose” them, maybe by having children). But it also leaves behind a lot of people who grew up in more socialized cultures. Appiah notes that many poorer countries keep their extended families together, partly because economic opportunity to do otherwise is not available. To always do that in our culture, some people would have to "change."

On the other hand, the CCRC concept, where a senior downsizes and lives well and independently -- but somewhat alone – in a modern, secure apartment with amenities, easy public transportation and community social activities, with paid assistance available if needed – seems efficient, and a concept that the “free” marketplace can probably provide. It is not, however, “family” as many seniors understand it. The extended family that Appiah talks about is one that transcends personal (and individualized) choice and consent.

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