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Old People’s Progress

In response to:

Walking Over Grandma from the May 12, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

Despite his successful demolition of Professor Fischer’s book, Lawrence Stone (“Walking Over Grandma,” NYR, May 12) seriously errs in his insistence on the “tolerable economic circumstances” of our old people. His euphoric presentation of how much money we Americans are willing to lavish on citizens we ourselves have made paupers and/or dependents of the state leads me to think that Professor Stone has come in contact either with no older people at all or only with those whose Social Security benefits are nicely padded by previous investment, pensions, income from property or the interest on life insurance policies.

I see every day and all around me in this city the struggle of broken-backed (from years of heavy labor), dull-eyed (from lack of proper nourishment) old people to pay their bills and meet their rent. Women in particular, whose wages have always been low, are forced to live on budgets which not even the economy of “Senior Citizen” fares, etc. can ameliorate. Even if wages have been high, Social Security payments can hardly be called “tolerable,” much less decent and humane. My mother, having worked since the age of fourteen, if and when she retires, would be entitled to not quite $400 a month. Rent for a two-room apartment in the Inner City of Hartford, where one does not step out after sundown, is $175; in a relatively safe area, the same apartment would cost $250, minimum. That would leave approximately $150 for living expenses. Would Professor Stone find that comfortable? He couldn’t afford The New York Times, much less The New York Review.

From Florida, reports have come to the effect that the elderly are eating canned dog and cat food as well as rummaging in garbage cans for their daily bread. Perhaps this is the situation which Professor Stone finds “serious, but not desperate.” Sounds pretty desperate to me. But, then, there seems to be a curious lapse in sympathetic imagination or even in the sense of reality which emerges from Professor Stone’s style. I do not profess to know his age, but his consistent use of the pronoun “they” indicates not only lack of identification with the plight of the old but an attempt to block out the realization that “they” is really “we.”

Particularly obnoxious are his self-congratulatory passages. How “kind” we are to these “productively useless and increasingly numerous creatures” because we do not push them into gas ovens! How humane we are because we sometimes give them a seat. Hasn’t Professor Stone heard about what easy prey the elderly are for muggers and thieves? We don’t need gas ovens or concentration camps—just deteriorating neighborhoods for people with poverty-level incomes, i.e. old people and blacks.

And who makes these people “useless” anyway? Workers over sixty-five are prohibited from collecting unemployment benefits. This means, of course, that they are deemed, by dint of age, unemployable. Why should someone be prejudged as being senile or feeble at any particular age? By all means, let the incompetent or incapable, of any age, color, sex or creed, be dismissed. But discrimination by age is no better than any other kind of discrimination.

A final point: the business about the old and “idle” “helping to stimulate” new attitudes toward leisure is palaver, pure and simple, and I sincerely hope Professor Stone will not have to learn that the hard way.

Dr. Nikki Stiller

University of New Orleans

Lawrence Stone replies:

As one aged fifty-seven, and therefore rapidly approaching the point of retirement, if not senility, I am hardly likely to underestimate the problems that face the aged in our society. The points I was making were purely comparative ones: that no society in the world has ever spent more of its GNP on the old, and that the lives of our aged poor, despite the ravages of inflation and the depredations of dishonest and callous nursing home operators, are generally far less horrible than they were in the past. Speaking as a historian, I am reasonably certain that these two facts are correct. I am also reasonably sure that the idea that in the past the aged poor were respected and cherished by their children is a myth. What has changed dramatically is the rise in proportionate numbers of the old, and the introduction of mandatory retirement from productive labor at a fixed age.

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