The Many-Sided Curse of Very Old Age

Here’s a tale that will be familiar to millions of the Greatest generation and their children of the Silent and Baby Boomer generations:

My grandparents and my wife’s grandparents were born in the years from 1875 to 1899. Their ages at death ranged from 25 to 96, for an average of 62.

My wife’s parents are still living, at the ages of 95 and 94. My father died at the age of 72, but my mother lives on at almost-99. That’s an average age of 90 — and rising.

My wife’s father was 6 when his father died and 56 when his mother died.

My wife’s mother was 14 when her father died and 52 when her mother died.

My mother was 25 when her father died and 61 when her mother died.

My father was 7 when his mother died and 35 when his father died.

My wife and I are 70-plus, and our three remaining parents are still going on … and on …

A long-lived parent is a mixed blessing. If you’re close to a parent, that parent’s growing dependence on you becomes a labor of love. If you’re not close to a parent, his or her long life simply imposes a labor of duty. In either case, the labor comes at an age when the child is on the downslope of energy.

What’s worse is that the rather competent, energetic, and often engaging parent of one’s earlier years is replaced by the addled, hobbled, and dull parent of one’s “golden years.” Financial prudence becomes miserliness; gregariousness turns into the retelling of stories and jokes for the umpteenth time; admirable determination gives way to pointless stubbornness.

Very old age is a test of character, and it’s a great disappointment when a parent fails the test. Too often, the facade of good cheer crumbles, to reveal extreme egoism, irresponsibility, and rancid bigotry.

I blame Medicare, in good part, for the miseries that very old age inflicts on the very old and on their children. I also blame Medicare for the miseries that it has inflicted and will continue to inflict on American taxpayers and workers.

The idea of ensuring access to health care is laudable, but Medicare — like so many government programs — has baleful side effects. To begin with, Medicare is yet another instance of the presumptuousness of the powerful. Big Brother presumes to know better than his subjects how they should spend their money and arrange their lives.

Medicare wasn’t sold as a subsidy, but it is one, just like Social Security and Medicaid. As with Social Security, the Medicare payroll tax doesn’t finance the full cost of the program. But because there are Medicare (and Social Security) taxes, most retirees believe (wrongly) that they have paid for their Medicare (and Social Security) benefits. They then consume their Medicare benefits with abandon because those benefits are almost free to them.

Instead of helping the truly penurious, Medicare (like Social Security) has become a middle-class welfare program. It relieves millions of workers from the responsibility of saving enough to pay for (or insure) their health care in old age. Thus the disincentivizing effects of Medicare (and Social Security) have caused and will continue to cause hundreds of millions of workers to produce far less than they would otherwise have produced. But drone-like politicians don’t understand such things.

The ever-growing cost of Medicare (with Social Security and Medicaid) threatens the well-being of future generations. Our progeny will be saddled with the exorbitant cost of caring for and subsidizing a burgeoning population of long-lived retirees — so many of whom know that they have lived too long and pray nightly “to shuffle[] off this mortal coil.”

We and our progeny will be hard-pressed to bear the exorbitant cost of Medicare and its socialistic ilk. The economy will sink deeper into the doldrums as resources are diverted from capital investments to subsidize oldsters who, for the most part, could have saved enough to pay for their own care and feeding had they not been discouraged from doing so.

The perfect storm of rising costs and slower economic growth means that future generations of Americans will be less well-fed, less well-clothed, less well-sheltered, and less healthy than the Greatest, the Silent, and the Boomer generations. There is great irony in the naming of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

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Related reading:
Life Expectancy Graphs at Mapping History
Steve Calfo et al., “Last Year of Life Study,” Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Office of the Actuary (undated)
Frank R. Lichtenberg, “The Effects of Medicare on Health Care Utilization and Outcomes,” Frontiers in Health Policy Research (Volume 5), MIT Press, January 2002
Kenneth Y. Chay et al., “Medicare, Hospital Utilization and Mortality: Evidence from the Program’s Origins,” NBER conference paper, February 2010
Theodore Dalrymple, “The Demand for Perfection,” Taki’s Magazine, December 14, 2014
Timothy Taylor, “How Medicare Spending Rises with Age,” The Conversable Economist, January 15, 2015

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Related posts:
As Goes Greece
The Commandeered Economy
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
The Rahn Curve Revisited

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