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Why I'm Frightened About Aging in America

This Influencer in Aging has fears for Social Security, Medicare and older workers

By Ruth Finkelstein

(Next Avenue invited all our 2016 Influencers in Aging to write essays about the one thing they would like to change about aging. This is one of the essays.)

I’m frightened.

I have been politically aware and active since before I began elementary school. It’s in my blood from both of my parents.

I remember my mother picking me up and bodily removing me as I lectured an adult neighbor who told me not to put pennies in my mouth because “Negroes might have touched them.” (I was explaining that everybody has the same germs.) I attended my earliest civil rights and antiwar demonstrations in the late 1950s and saw Martin Luther King Jr. give multiple speeches including “I have a Dream.” I may have never forgiven my new stepfather when his appearance in our lives necessitated removing the “Kennedy/Johnson” sticker from the front window because he was a government employee.

In fourth grade, I argued with my teacher about the real meaning of “In your heart, you know he’s right — vote Barry Goldwater.” I canvassed for Eugene McCarthy and went on strike after the Kent State shootings.

An Activist With a New Outlook

In 1982, following the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, I had the good fortune to be hired by Planned Parenthood as an organizer when the group mounted a campaign to preserve the national family planning program and abortion rights. From then on, I have had the privilege of working in policy and advocacy — as my paid job and in my personal life — and have been angry, grief-stricken, indignant, passionate and effective. But until now, I have not been frightened.

What does this all have to do with aging? And what does it have to do with my current work at the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University as well as running the Age Smart Employer Awards — to create the policy and practice framework that enables people to work as they wish, as long as they wish? (Let me pause here to say that the opinions expressed in this essay are wholly my own and not those of Columbia University.) Good question.

Worries About Social Security, Medicare and Older Workers

First, when you fundamentally do not trust that your country’s leader has the good of the people as his motivation, then you fear that any position can be distorted to harm others if it suits the leader’s purposes (or ego needs).

Will he say that if older people want to work longer, then the government will raise the age of Social Security eligibility for all (to the grave detriment of people whose health and job safety necessitate an earlier departure from that work)?

Will he say that the age of eligibility for Medicare should similarly rise?

We know that restructuring and cutting Medicare and Social Security are priorities for leaders of the Congressional majority. What deal will this leader make to gain the cooperation of Congress on something he cares about? (I’ll trade you Medicare cost-sharing for the price of a wall.) We already know he has said that he’ll repeal The Affordable Care Act, which contributed to the insurability of people over 50 before their eligibility for Medicare.


Who will have the energy or attention to think about employment practices when basic foundations of the country are in question?

Losing Critical Tools

I have been arguing policy questions my whole life. But now, I feel I am losing critical tools. Science, evidence and facts appear to have less value in informing policy decisions. Scientists with key information on these (and other) policy issues have been silenced. Grants investigating inconvenient truths have been frozen. And the press, responsible for conveying these arguments to the public, is becoming a discredited source of information, beginning to choose its battles.

All this, combined with restrictions on who can enter this country and muddying boundaries between branches and functions of government makes me frightened that we are tilting toward a new Totalitarianism.

Reason for Hope

Hope, though, comes from aging and generativity.

I saw three- and four-generation families marching in the January 21 Women’s March, saying explicitly, “we’re doing it for them,” pointing always to the youngest in their group.

And I gain hope for how many of us who are old, or getting old, are still fighting while the young are joining up. I gain courage from my peers and hope to set an example for my students and my children.

I am frightened, but I try to remember that when individuals take action collectively, they do sometimes change the course of history.

Ruth Finkelstein was a 2016 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging and is executive director of the Brookdale Center on Aging at Hunter College, CUNY. She is the former associate director of the Robert N. Butler Aging Center at Columbia University. Read More
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