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Valuing the elderly requires changing values

In 1935, the year that Social Security was created, the life expectancy at birth of an average American was 61.7 years. Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, life expectancy at birth is 78.8 years. And, of course, there are many people living longer than those 78.8 years, thanks in part to modern medicine. Put another way, between 2000 and 2050, the number of people 65-plus is expected to increase by 135 percent, with those 85 and over expected to increase by 350 percent.

According to the Bible, Methuselah lived to be 969 years old. But what value did his society place on his life? Perhaps the better question is what value do we as a society place on the lives of older people, whether 65-plus or 85-plus?

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According to an Oct. 17, 2014 Washington Post article, "the latest rankings show that nations in Europe (Norway, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands) and Canada do a lot better job than America of creating a high quality of life for elderly people." The consensus has always been that an aging population will overburden the nation's resources and detract from the overall quality of life for all people. The Post article points out that an aging population may be good for looking for innovative approaches needed to prepare for our aging society.

Those innovative approaches need to start with the older population itself. In fact, let's do something very innovative and let older people tell us what they want to give quality to their lives and allow them to be the developers of those innovations. Rather than letting the government, the medical field, social workers and a host of businesses tell us what older people want and need, allow older Americans to define their lives by their standards.

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One of the areas needing reevaluation is that of caregiving of older folks who have lived well into their 80s and 90s and who need additional help. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the No. 2 and No. 3 ranked jobs on the government's list of 30 fastest-growing careers by the year 2016 are "personal and home care aides" and "home health aides" for those with more extensive health-care needs. The pay for these two careers, respectively, are $18,000 and $20,000. By comparison, the No. 1 career is a "network systems and data communications analyst," paying $67,000; the No. 4 career is a "computer applications software engineer," paying $82,000.

Just looking at the numbers, one might be inclined to apply Albert Einstein's quote, used of a different era and conflict: "It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity." For what we are willing to pay speaks volumes about what we value. We need to value the care given the compromised elderly by educating caregivers more fully in their interaction with clients and pay them according to the value they demonstrate in keeping their clients healthy and engaged in living.

Hermine Saunders writes from Westminster.

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