- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 31, 2005

A mild tsunami of controversy erupted in the media just before New Year’s Eve as word came that 76-year-old stroke-victim Dick Clark’s pre-event publicity photographs were “doctored” to hide his poststroke condition.

First, one has to assume every Hollywood, TV and other promotional and advertising photograph is fixed, enhanced or otherwise digitally improved. It’s difficult to imagine photographs of young starlets without some wrinkle removal.

Yet some newspapers seemed to delight with a hint of derision that the once-ageless Dick Clark “may be unable to properly perform his annual year-end duties on Saturday night, New Year’s Eve.” Are we expecting Mr. Clark to run a marathon?

But the larger issue is: Why do we Americans insist upon ignoring the aging of our population, that older Americans have a lot to contribute (and have contributed a lot already) and that our medical system and how we approach the debilitations of old age and its myriad disabilities is seriously flawed?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging states the stark reality of our older population: “The older population — persons 65 years or older — numbered 36.3 million in 2004 (the latest year for which data are available). They represented 12.4 percent of the U.S. population, about 1 in every 8 Americans. By 2030, there will be about 71.5 million older persons, more than twice their number in 2000. People 65-plus represented 12.4 percent of the population in the year 2000 but are expected to grow to be 20 percent of the population by 2030.”

We cannot afford to sweep under the rug 71.5 million older people anymore than we can ignore racial minorities, the homeless or other demographic groups.

But we are already sweeping older Americans under the rug; and this starts with an insidious lack of dignity and respect afforded our elderly. If you don’t believe age discrimination is real, take a trip with your aging mother, father, other relative or friend the next time they go shopping, especially for a big-ticket item. I’ve seen some of the slimy, condescending and outright dishonest treatment doled out to the aged by despicable salespeople masquerading their criminality with pseudo-caring. Clerks and sales personnel often mistake aging for stupidity. The result: The old person’s car repair likely costs more and takes longer. The older car buyer might miss out on all the rebates and cost savings.

Age discrimination and lawlessness occurs even among some health-care providers. Ask a relative to count out the tablets of a high-priced medication prescribed for an elderly person. The assumption of stupidity or other mental impairment such as Alzheimer’s encourages unethical pharmacists.

But these problems pale in comparison to the snarl of our medical system.

Our medical system and facilities are swamped with older Americans seeking care. Efforts to solve this impending crisis (if it isn’t a crisis already) have often been misguided, mired in government bureaucracy or shaped to help enhance the finances of companies with a vested interest. A case in point: A new Medicare prescription drug benefit kicks off today, yet older Americans (and even their children and medical care professionals) report the myriad choices makes program selection nearly impossible.

Fortunately, a program can be selected until May 15. But providers are in it for the money; so trusting them for reliable advice on the right program is problematic. The aged are often left to secure the best plan for their own needs.

As costs mount and care erodes, can medical care rationing be far behind? The argument is as follows: The costs of prolonging the life of one elderly person (who clearly can no longer contribute to the economy and productivity of the nation) might be more productively used to treat many more younger persons whose health can be ensured at less cost.

This thought of health-care rationing places us on the slippery slope toward euthanasia: the intentional and speedy demise of our aged to save money. In a nation that legalizes abortion, a practice likened to the Holocaust and called outright murder by some theologians, can medical care rationing and even legalized euthanasia be far behind?

Thus, our aging population forces us to discuss and come to terms with the most fundamental questions of man: What is the cost of a human life? How do we honor and cherish human life? Certainly the wealthiest democracy in human history can come to grips with these pressing questions.

Respect for human life and social justice are a cornerstone of American foreign policy, and rightfully so. Our nation was founded on respect for the freedoms of man. Millions of people in the world look to America as a beacon on such issues.

We can ill afford to expect justice, equality, and respect for human life overseas while we dismally flail with these same issues at home.

We wildly celebrate the dawning of a New Year as a hopeful harbinger of better days, better things and new beginnings. In the process, let’s not forget our aging population, a group most of us will be lucky enough to join.

On aging issues, we have work to do in 2006 and beyond.

John E. Carey lost a family member to stroke and Alzheimer’s disease in 2005. He is a writer in Falls Church, Va.

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