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The Not So Secret War Against the Very Old and the Very Young

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DEMENTIA OLD AGE

Last night I was watching a documentary on the street games of New York City, games I had played as a boy growing up in that magical city of the 1940s. Two things came to mind as I watched the program. The first was that it would have so much meaning for older Americans reconnecting them to their past -- one filled with stickball and jump rope and stay at home mothers who could afford to keep an eye on what their kids were doing -- and the second that public television is under attack by the budget whacking Republicans in this Congress who choose to regard it as an elitist frivolity and have put it on the endangered species list.

Defunding public television which reaches the very young (bless you Big Bird) and the very old is comparable to Marie Antoinette's alleged solution to the cries of the hungry who had no bread, "Let them eat cake." This Congress, bought by cable TV lobbyists makes the cry of "Let them watch HBO and other high-cost cable." I wonder how many elderly have the expensive cable packages that provide a variety of entertainment, or the children of the poor have learning and history channels. Not many. Only PBS can provide adult entertainment (and that doesn't mean XXX) for very little public money and private contributions. Note to Congress. There are some of us elders who couldn't bring ourselves to watch "winner" Charlie Sheen even before he became the volunteer spokesman for a sugar-free diet soft drink called "Tiger's Blood." Such programs as the one about street games that appeal to older American will not survive if this Congress has its way. Nor will the meals provided for the impoverished elderly, and the starving kids, nor will the social halls that provide lonely elders with companionship, the small buses that take them to doctors and the kindergarten programs that prepare small children -- okay, you are 37 or 43 and your eyes are glazing over. It won't happen to you or yours, right? Trust me. Don't bet on it.

Earlier in the week I watched the venerable actor/singer Mickey Rooney testify before Congress about the elder abuse that he had experienced: a courageous act on the part of a beleaguered old man, exploited by relatives, stripped of his dignity and his savings, yet willing to testify about the all too common experience of elder-abuse. Mickey represented the spirit of buoyant youth in the thirties and forties, the spirit that would get us through the Great Depression. And now he is old and abused, a man transformed from a brilliant child entertainer into a cautionary tale of old age left in desperate circumstances. Sure he had five gorgeous wives (including the super-nova Ava Gardner) and must have blown some of his MGM dough along the way -- but it took a crooked relative and an indifferent society to leave him destitute.

Elder abuse comes in many forms -- and it has crept in to our public arguments about budget cuts, social security; the evaluation of school-teachers and if you flip it, you will find that elder abuse is the other side of child abuse.

It has suddenly become popular to believe that experienced teachers lack the value that new teachers offer to our children. This campaign against experience by our elected leaders is so full of hokum, an effort to reduce the modest salaries and pensions of experienced teachers by replacing them with recent graduates. There is no saying that the new teacher is less good than the older one -- but in the world I have lived in for the past seventy odd years experience has a proven value. The war against aeing teachers is part of the war against homeless school-kids also shown in a PBS documentary -- kids arriving at school hungry -- and going to bed at night hungry in a cheap motel room where the electricity has been turned off -- millions of such kids now live this way as a result of our recession. But the lawmakers would rather this continue than consider a new tax upon the wealthiest of their constituents. Have I missed it, or was there no outcry from state governors and congressmen to reduce their own astonishing pensions and health care packages. The billionaire Koch Brothers (whose trick is to support the arts and PBS while funding the most conservative politicians who destroy our environment) probably don't believe in the existence of starving children. It is to them a liberal fantasy that must be ignored. They have even built a new ballet theatre at Lincoln Center -- perhaps the best career for the children left to starve -- since the sight of protruding collarbones is a delight to any balletomane.

The war against pensions for state employees by the very state governments who have given such tax breaks to billionaires is drenched in hypocrisy. These governors have robbed their own coffers to lower taxes, unbalanced their own books, and now cry poverty -- that war is behind Wisconsin and other states who are asking the public worker to tighten his/her belt, while providing enormous tax breaks for their richest citizens. We happen to have the lowest tax rates in the developed world -- shockingly lower than it was in the days of Roosevelt and Eisenhower and Reagan -- yet it can never be low enough for the super rich (excluding the Gates' and Warren Buffet and other sane billionaires who recognize that we all share one planet). And many of the unions -- which means workers -- are prepared to take cuts to save jobs -- but the cuts will never be enough for these governors.

Then there is the intellectual war against the elderly. I recently read a book review in the New York Times which described old age as a chamber of horrors. Here is gets personal for me. I am still clinging to my late seventies but many of my friends are in their middle eighties and among us are those who find this period one of the most joyful we have ever known, despite the inevitable losses. The other day I was speaking with a lyricist/composer friend "S" (I haven't had time to ask his permission to mention his name here) and we discussed the fact that both of us had found a certain calm, a real peace, and a sense of balance (emotional if not physical) at this time of life -- a peace that was denied to us in our younger years.

If you are real lucky you have small grand-children, God's compensation for arthritis and bad weather. Sure we get cancer and spinal stenosis, our hips hurt, our knees are untrustworthy and getting up from the bathtub can be a little tricky -- but many of us have found that tranquility that we never knew in our ambitious, greed for life and success youth. And little is written about that splendid gift of serenity that often comes with age. In our media it's as if arriving at eighty means "would you kindly pass the hemlock and get me out of here."

As a writer I suffered from age discrimination in my television career when I hit the great age of 50 -- but I went on to write plays and musicals -- three new ones which are scheduled for regional theatre productions within the next year. And I am not alone in this rebirth of work and career. Many of my octogenarian friends are still working productively, living rich lives, although faced by widowhood and other grievous losses. Among my wealthier friends I know of none who would not support a means test for Medicare, which puts the lie to the greedy elders sucking up the economy. Yes, I've rambled a bit here but I don't think that is the result of my age but of the passion I feel for the subjects I have discussed. We must get back to the time when experience mattered, and when responsibility on the part of the fortunate meant a generous and benevolent attitude by government and private donors for small children caught in the snares of poverty. I am not asking Americans to change -- just get back to who they were -- a people with a deep sense of responsibility towards those who could not care for themselves, the people who gave us Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. We were a people who had enough vision to look beyond our own immediate interests because we knew that by doing so we were really protecting our own interests by allowing others the dignity we demand for ourselves.