It is an entrenched custom of U.S. culture to make exceptional accommodations for children and this is good. It is understood by everyone that children are by nature stupid, likely at any moment to do something that will maim or kill them.
Parents install those little buttons in electrical outlets so the children won’t fry themselves. They use gates to keep toddlers from tumbling down the stairs. And they hide dangerous household products where curious fingers can’t reach them.
In public, we install traffic signs near playgrounds to alert drivers to the possible sudden appearance of a child chasing a ball into the street. We require bicycle helmets, safety features on car seats and strollers, and there isn’t anyone who wouldn’t grab a kid wandering into a crosswalk against the light.
We also make accommodations for the disabled – ramps and curb cuts for wheelchairs; special parking places close to building entrances; Braille on elevator buttons so the blind can get to the floor they want.
Although some of the modifications for the disabled are helpful to old people, in general little attention is paid to their needs in public places, as was evident at a recent flu shot clinic I attended. Fifty-eight stairs for people in their 70s, 80s and 90s using walkers and canes is unreasonable.
Eighty percent of old people live independently and do quite well for themselves, but that doesn’t mean they have the stamina, energy and agility of younger adults. It took the local block association five years of petitions and public hearings to convince the Department of Transportation in New York City to extend the time of a walk sign on a wide avenue in the neighborhood so old people could get across the street before traffic, horns blaring, started bearing down on them.
It doesn’t need to be that way. Why aren’t there take-a-number systems with benches for people to await their turn in bureaucracies where there are liable to be long lines? Even the local butcher uses that arrangement. Why don’t products and medicines come with instructions in larger than one-point type? Why don’t more physicians check in with their elderly patients by telephone? Monitoring chronic conditions doesn’t always require an office visit and it would save health insurance costs too.
And what has happened to the practice of my childhood in the 1950s when youngsters automatically gave up their seats on the subway or bus for old people? When did people of all ages stop holding doors for elders with packages? And why can’t store clerks take a little extra time to answer questions from people with hearing problems or who are a bit confused? A little patience from all of us wouldn’t hurt and can help an older person a lot.
We are careful to shield children who don’t know any better yet from all kinds of trouble they can get themselves into. It is only right to make accommodations for the difficulties that commonly turn up at the other end of life.