On a residential street not far from my home there is a traffic sign: "Deaf Child." On a nearby corner where a retirement community is located, there is another traffic warning, "Elderly Crossing." (I would prefer it said "Elder Crossing," but that is a different issue from today.)
Society routinely makes allowances to protect children. We place guards at school crossings so that kids, apt to distraction, get to class in one piece. Megan's Law and other legislation help keep predators at bay. And based on the fact that they as yet lack experience and judgment, minors are not allowed to enter into contracts.
But aside from arrangements elders make for themselves such as living wills and durable powers of attorney, there isn't much concern for protecting people at the other end of life. Old people are, after all, adults.
A recent story in The New York Times attempts to think out loud about what protections might be needed or should be allowed. Building on the (lengthy and unnecessary) details of how a man came to give away all his substantial nest egg to a grifter, the writer quotes Sharon Merriman-Nai of the National Center on Elder Abuse:
"Figuring out how to protect senior citizens from victimization, even when it's caused by their own mistakes, is one of the most important issues facing us right now. If we don't solve this, millions of older people will suddenly be reliant on their families and the government.
"But we also have to figure out how to balance our desire to protect vulnerable seniors with their rights to autonomy."
Elders are more frequently targeted in fraud attempts than young people because the con men aren't stupid - old people tend to be more trusting than younger people, they have a lifetime of savings and may be too embarrassed to report being duped. In addition, declining cognitive ability can impair decision-making. As much as we each like to think our mental faculties will remain intact, there is no guarantee we won't become dotty enough to cave into swindles or other forms of fraud.
But most of us will not need protection and therein lies the difficulty. There are bad people in the world and I believe we, as a society, have an obligation to protect those who are vulnerable. But as long as I've still got all my buttons, I'll be damned if I'll allow anyone to tell me how to spend my money or require a test or whatever else a bureaucracy might think up to judge my capabilities. As 78-year-old George Tomer, quoted in the Times piece, says,
"If you look at how seniors are portrayed, it's demeaning. We travel all over the world. We're as active now as we were in our 40s. But the only old people you see on television are buying adult diapers or scooters. It's frustrating when some salesman treats me as a child."
"Frustrating?" I'm not as kind as George. I want to whack the kid - it's always a kid - who treats me like I'm an idiot because I'm old.
Nevertheless, as the number of old people as a proportion of the population increases in coming years, there will be more who, due to declining mental ability or just stupidity (you don't get smarter just because you get older) will need help. We must develop means to do that without infantiziling elders and that won't be easy.
"We know that, statistically, seniors are at enormous risk for fraud," said A. Kimberly Dayton of the Center for Elder Justice at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. "It's foolish to ignore that. But there's also a huge dilemma in determining when someone is just being eccentric, versus someone who is a victim of undue influence."
[Hat tip to the dozen or so who emailed me this Times story.]
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lia recalls the joys of women-only day at the community swimming pool in Subculture I.]