The Old Folks and Geezers' Lobby


Havre de Grace. -- Recently I discovered that I'm almost eligible for the senior discount at McDonald's, and in preparation for that major milestone I sent away for a baseball cap with a gray ponytail attached.

It makes me look very distinguished, in a sort of '60s way, rather like a tenured professor of some useless discipline -- Semiotic deconstructionism? Gender studies? -- at an important university. I'm looking for a McGovern button to attach to it.

No sooner did the cap arrive than, by a strange coincidence, I started getting torrents of mail from the old folks' lobby. Some of this stuff is preposterous and some is extremely creepy, but its unifying symbol is the outstretched palm. Just about every communication asks for money, mostly for the promised purchase of votes in Congress.

Almost all the older people I know are perfectly normal, but by what comes in the mail you'd think the typical senior citizen was a militant AARPster, a soldier in a huge doddering army intent on solidifying a death grip on its grandchildrens' paychecks.

AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, is said to have zillions of members and to be a powerful political force. Yet it doesn't really stand for anything. For those reasons and others, it resembles the Democratic Party.

As a powerful lobby it's quite at home in Washington, where the federal government feeds it well. In recent years it has received

federal grants in excess of $80 million annually. This contribution from the unwitting taxpayers, along with its membership dues, helps fuel AARP's efforts to squeeze even more money out of the government.

Whether most AARP members share the views espoused by their organization can't be determined with any certainty, but it seems unlikely. AARP likes the Clintons, and it especially liked Mrs. Clinton's doomed health plan. It didn't like the Balanced Budget Amendment. While those might all have been mainstream positions once, they aren't any more.

There's no denying that many older people in the United States are worried about what the future may hold for them, and with reason. Even though they're healthier, richer and better-informed than any generation that has gone before, there's cause for concern.

As always, the uncertainties of life loom larger as the years go by.

What if the checks stop coming in? What if the government's promises turn out to be empty ones?

What if the children don't want to help out? Or do want to help but are crushed by the expense?

Ideally, when we grow old and incapacitated our children and perhaps others in our communities will take care of us. That's the way it's supposed to work, and the way it works best. But it doesn't always play out that way, and different kinds of safety nets are needed.

After her husband died this spring, a widow I know turned to her daughter and two grown grandchildren for assistance. She wasn't well enough to live alone, but she didn't need much -- a little companionship, someone to drive her to the store now and then, some help around the house.

But the daughter turned out to be useless and the grandchildren, though loving, had lives of their own to lead.

So a Harford County agency stepped in, and help was quickly, cheerfully and efficiently provided to the widow. The people of the county see basic services for the elderly as a good use of their local tax dollars, and they get their money's worth.

Harford County tends to vote Republican, which must be confusing to Democrats, who feel proprietary about the elderly and like to suggest that Republicans want to pack everyone over 65 off to the ovens. This thinking was perfectly expressed in that great American document, the Democratic Party Platform of 1984.

"Beginning with President Franklin D. Roosevelt," the platform says, "the Democratic Party has been dedicated to the well-being of the senior citizens of America." But despite the party's half-century of political dominance, "for millions of Americans, particularly women, minorities and ethnic Americans, old age means poverty, insecurity, and desperation."

The dismal plight of 1984's elderly was due, apparently, not to 50 years of Democratic incompetence but to four years of Ronald Reagan. In other words, the Democrats were saying, if you're old and content, vote for us out of gratitude. If you're old and scared, vote for us out of fear. But the old folks obstinately didn't get the message.

Now that I have my gray ponytail, I guess I should subscribe to AARP's magazine, Modern Maturity, to keep up with these issues. I'm told it explains politics in a way we old people can understand.

That surprised me, because although I've seen the magazine around, I'd always thought it had to do with municipal bonds or something.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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