Elders: In Depth
- The Struggle of Self-Reliance
The Struggle of Self-Reliance
Many seniors find themselves navigating life, health, and even death without structural supports.
In 1982, my partner and I joined with two friends to produce Lesbian Contradiction: A Journal of Irreverent Feminism. We started out typing four-inch columns of text on a typewriter and laying out on a homemade light table what was to become a quarterly tabloid. We used melted paraffin from an electric waxer to affix strips of paper to guide sheets the size of the final pages. The finished boards would then go to a local commercial printing press where our run of 2,000 copies would be printed. For its 12-year existence, our entire editorial process was mediated through the United States Postal Service.
All of which is to say: I’m old. That fact—and recent events in the lives of several friends—has brought to mind the first article I ever published in LesCon: “Who’s Going to Run the Old Dykes’ Home?” It’s a question that’s no less pertinent today, and not just for lesbians. Back then, I naively believed that someone—the state or people’s families—would look out for heterosexual elders, but that we lesbians were on our own.
It turns out we are all on our own.
With our aging friends, my partner and I help out with transport to doctors’ offices, communication queries, tech support, and sometimes just relieving the loneliness of it all. In recent months, elderly friends have faced losing their housing, their spouses, their mobility, or their cognitive abilities.
I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m reminded daily that getting older can be frustrating and frightening. It pains me to know that my bones are weakening, I don’t hear as well as I used to, and my once-familiar face in the mirror is growing ever stranger. I especially hate the way words that used to leap down my tongue in merry cadence now lurk sullenly in the backwaters of my brain. For some years now, whenever I want to talk about cashew nuts, all I can initially think of is “carob.”
Written more than 40 years ago, when I was not yet 30, parts of “The Old Dykes’ Home” are flat-out embarrassing now. But, in other ways, my article was depressingly prescient. Pretty much anyone who isn’t affluent may find that old age can bring economic desperation.
Yes, U.S. citizens and permanent residents over 65 can get medical attention through Medicare, but the standard program covers only 80% of your bills. Beginning in 2006, we gained access to some prescription drug coverage, but that requires sifting through an ever-changing menu of medications and the ability to predict today what meds you might need tomorrow. Most people who live long enough will receive monthly income from Social Security, although the amount depends in part on how much they were able to earn during their working lives. But we’re constantly staving off attempts to privatize Social Security, reduce benefit amounts, or increase the age at which people can collect because well-paid Americans (not all Americans) are living longer.
Suppose the disabilities of age mean you can no longer safely live in your own home. Unless you can afford to move to some kind of assisted-living facility, your main alternative is to spend down what you own so you qualify for the pittance that your state Medicaid program will pay a nursing home (most likely for-profit) to warehouse you until you die.
My article also left out the fact that it’s easier to justify low pay for caregiving when most of its practitioners are women. I never imagined that, decades later, a National Domestic Workers Alliance would arise to represent the interests of the poorly paid, disrespected workforce of immigrants and women of color who largely do the work of caring for the aged in this country.
Back then, my answer to the problem of aging was to endorse an ethic of volunteerism rooted in specific communities, like our lesbian one. “Feminists,” I wrote, “are rightly uneasy about asking each other to perform any more unpaid work in our lives than we, and centuries of women before us, have already done.”
In retrospect, I was inching toward an ethos that could free the project of caring for each other from the claws of capitalism. But I was naive about the amount of time and energy people would be able to spare outside of their day’s labor. I didn’t imagine a time when people would need to work two or even three jobs just to get by. I didn’t think, as I do now, that it would be better to focus on raising the status and pay of caring work.
My short-term goal back then was to develop “formal networks of support to deal with illness and disability,” because eventually each of us would need such structures. We lesbians would have to look out for ourselves because we lived “on the edges of society.” I didn’t realize at the time that we shared those edges with so many other people.
The longer-term project was to build “a world in which the work of caring for each other happens not at the fringes of society, but at its heart.” I still believe in that larger goal. Every one of us is simultaneously depending on others, while others depend on us. The self-reliant individual is an illusion, so constructing societies based on the idea is bound to fail. It will fail us, those who depend on us, and those on whom we depend.
My partner and I are gambling that good genes, regular exercise, a reasonable diet, and sufficient mental stimulation will keep our limbs, organs, and minds hale enough to, as they say, “age in place.” We don’t plan to get Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or congestive heart failure or take a life-changing fall down a flight of stairs. Having somehow forgotten to have children, we’re planning to take care of ourselves.
The truth is, we have much less control than we’d like to believe over how we’ll age. Tomorrow, one of us could lose the disability lottery, and, like so many of our friends, we could be staring at the reality of growing old in a society that treats preparation for—and survival during—old age as a matter of personal responsibility.
It’s time to accept the fact that all of us lucky enough to live long will become ever more dependent as we age. It’s time to place caring for one another at the heart of the human endeavor.