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Jewish World Review July 5, 2001/ 14 Tamuz, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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Lucy in the sky with cataracts -- OUR society grows older. The boomers, who were going to live forever, confidently vowed never to trust anyone over 30, and now they're getting poetic justice. The new young don't trust them, either. Lucy in the Sky has developed cataracts.

That's why we're having crucial debates over the future of Social Security, health care, patients rights and above all the right to sue anybody who doesn't get it right.

Many of the problems roiling our politics are about an aging society where health and the ability to pursue happiness in the concluding decades of life are thought to be in jeopardy. The young don't have any confidence that the aging boomers are capable of taking care of business. The rolling stones gather moss.

Individualism and the needs of community have always created generational conflicts, the unavoidable clashes of human perspective. An appreciation of independence is an undiscriminating taste in the young, who are relentless in their quest for it. The older a man gets, the more he yearns for the protections of society.

It's much easier to believe in unqualified independence when you're in the bloom and vigor of youth; courage is easier to call up in the bustle of the afternoon than in the lonely solitude of 3 in the morning when every shadow hides menace.

The sheer imbalance in the generational numbers as the baby boomers moved through the different stages of their life experience made us late in forging a balance of the common good as the 20th Century slipped into history. The imbalance now is exacerbated because we're living much longer, creating a whole new subcategory of the population known as the "old-old.'' These are the men and women now in their 80s and even 90s who may be relatively healthy, but who worry when or where they'll be struck by a fall, a fire, a stroke or a heart attack. And then what?

Few high-quality nursing homes or "assisted-living facilities'' are available for most of them, and the good ones are very, very expensive. Medicare was not designed to address "quality of life.''

Even calling 911 is a lottery in many cities, where it is understaffed and slow to respond. Last week in my neighborhood in Washington, an elderly neighbor who lives alone fell in his apartment. Five calls to 911, with rings numbering in the dozens, finally got a dispatcher, and 45 minutes elapsed before an ambulance, which had been dispatched from a distant part of the city, arrived. Fortunately, the neighbor had only a broken shoulder. If he had had a severe heart attack, we might as well have called an undertaker.

When the Enlightenment began to percolate with unaccustomed ideas, the German writer Goethe fretted that theories of caring would turn the world into "one huge hospital where everyone is everybody else's nurse.'' Sometimes it seems we're almost there. But we're often concerned less about the ethics of care than about how to force others to pay money and attention.

We talk more about the necessity to sue "care-givers'' (we're really talking about "care-sellers'') than about how to find ways to inspire better care. We're terrified of becoming our brothers' keepers or our sisters' sustenance. Concern about reciprocal obligations are absent from the national dialogue. Congressmen speak thickly in a rhetoric of concern while wading waist-deep in the shallows of government regulation. Patients, for good reason, don't trust bureaucrats to help, and even well-intentioned administrators quickly spend their concern on the bottom line.

When the president calls for Good Samaritans of faith-based organizations to participate with government in caring for those who need it most, the national conversation quickly bogs down in a discussion about how to keep "the wrong people'' from participating.

The president assumes -- and it may be an invalid assumption -- that those who have toiled in the vineyards of voluntary work have natural instincts to best serve the needy. The skeptics merely see another group in it for the government money.

The boomers, who grew up not trusting anyone over 30, are inheriting a world where no one trusts anyone. You don't need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blew.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS