Saturday, May 05, 2007

It's nice not to be too old yet

MNSBC has a recent article entitled Who cares for childless elderly?

Apparently more child-free people are aging, and some are wondering who's going to take care of them when they're drooling in their jello.


I have to admit to a tiny bit of unseemly and totally uncalled-for schadenfreude, most likely stemming from a pro-family bias. I support 100% a person's decision not to procreate. Having children is definitely not for everyone, and no one should be made to feel obligated, or as if a child-free life is of less value than that of a parent.

However, having children is (usually) a very valuable and rewarding experience. Raising children is essential to the survival of our society and our species, and is very difficult to do well. It tends to broaden one's perspective in some ways, and focus you in others. If you're doing it right, it definitely beats some selfishness out of you.

And unfortunately, because some child-free people *have* on occasion been made to feel selfish or "less", and because it's sometimes wrapped up in the issue of hetero-/homo-sexuality, there's occasionally some resentment about it, and there's a bit of a backlash (gay people referring to straights "breeders", etc). To the point where I've met child-free couples who are aggressively argumentative about their choice.

My favorite thing (not) is when people act all smug about how they're taking a stance against overpopulation. In the first place, why exactly do we want fewer people? The only reasonable answer I can think of is to enhance the quality of life of the people who *are* born. But it seems to me that very few people would choose not existing to being poor & hungry, so who are we to make that choice for them?
It's an amazing coincidence that (as PJ O'Rourke said), there's "way too many of everybody else, but just the right amount of me."
IOW, when we argue for less population, we're essentially arguing for our own selfish interests (ie, we want other people to not exist so that we can have more of the earth's resources). Not that there's anything wrong with that, but we should at least admit it.

And of course, if *everybody* stopped having kids, the species would die out; so to achieve the goal (fewer people), we really only need *some* people to stop breeding, not everyone. Which brings me to this: the places where we need fewer people are the places where the natural resources and political/economic infrastructure can't support large populations at any level above grinding poverty (ie, India, Africa, China?). If there was ever a place where it makes sense to make more kids, it's the USA, Canada, Western Europe -- where by virtue of their wealth and opportunity, a relatively larger percentage of the kids will eventually be doctors, scientists, etc who will make contributions to the world's benefit. But of course, these are the places where the birthrate is the lowest, where immigration is the only thing keeping their populations growing.

Furthermore, increasing the world's population by less than 0.00000002% (one six-billionth) has a negligible effect on the population question; and you can't get all Categorical Imperative on me, because as I said, if everyone did it your way, the entire species would disappear, wouldn't it? So IMHO, you can do just as much for the world by borning and raising a responsible, socially conscious child (who, incidentally, is likely to keep you from being a burden on everyone else when you're old) than by getting all smug about your vasectomy.

So anyway, when child-free people get old and suddenly start wondering who's going to care for them, I admit to thinking "Well, that's one of the differences between you and me: when I was changing diapers, cleaning up puke, and trying not to kill tearing my hair out trying to turn recalcitrant teenagers into responsible, productive adults, you were in Europe, or maybe just eating out or taking your dog for a walk." The point is that children are an investment in the future. Bread upon the waters and all that.


But my prejudices aside, the topic of the childless elderly raises some interesting questions:
  • Who's responsible to care for the elderly who haven't provided for their own care?
  • If we hold that a society is obligated to care for its members who can't provide for themselves, what standard of living are they entitled to?
  • What's the deal with old people not closing their mouths? Is it really that hard?
So anyway...

More often than we'd like to think, you can do everything right and still get nailed by bad people, bad luck, unforeseeable circumstances, etc, and end up poor and alone in old age.

But the unfairness of life aside, I feel we each have a responsibility to provide for ourselves as much as possible, whether by saving sufficient money, or by becoming of value to society, or by developing a social network (eg, descendents and friends) who will be motivated to care for us.

When I read (or see movies) about people who are in desperate straits, and it all comes down to lacking $1 for bus fare to somewhere or whatever, I always think “Where are their friends? Don’t they have anyone to help them? We’re social animals, we’re interdependent creatures. I feel like we all have an obligation to be social enough – and helpful/kind enough to others – to be part of a support network.

And the question of aging is part of that. If you don’t have kids, you need to make friends with some younger people. Help them out. Babysit for them. If they’re really young, you can hire them to cut your lawn, or listen to them complain when their parents won’t let them get an eyebrow ring. Loan them money for school, give them a ride to the mall, whatever.

I don’t mean we need to be manipulative and self-serving – I just mean make some friends. Don’t isolate yourself. Don’t fall into the trap of being judgmental and curmudgeonly about how things are now – open your mind and make an effort to be cool enough and nice enough that when you’re old and you need a ride to the doctor, you’ll know enough people who like you that someone might be available to drive you.

And of course, saving money is important. If you want comfort in old age, you might need to be putting some away right now. I’m considering whether I should start that also, or if I’ll just settle for being 100% a burden to my children (for the record, I’m leaning toward burden, but I’m still considering all the options.)

Money is the best thing (even better than progeny -- your kids may hate you, but money's always good) to keep you comfortable, especially if you live long enough to need more than taxi and meal service. With money, at the very least you can find someone who will take care of you -- and even pretend to like you -- in exchange for a mention in your will.

So there you have it. Plenty of opinion, backed by half-baked theories or even outright fantasy. Your opinion is welcome...


At Sun May 06, 05:32:00 PM PDT, Blogger Irma said...

Good post! I agree life in a family is best. And for those who are without progeny, it's beneficial for many reasons to cultivate friendships with young people.

However, some people are fiercely independant and/or introverted in nature. They are not always "judgemental & curmudgeonly." For these people, socializing is not fun. They are most content on their own and requiring a more "social" lifestyle would make them miserable. It would be like isolating a social person, they don't like it!!

Just to toss another viewpoint in there.

The best hope for these people is that they won't require a lot of care in old age....

At Mon May 07, 01:26:00 PM PDT, Blogger bryan torre said...

you make a good point -- not everyone can be as social as everyone else. i do think it serves our interest to learn, tho, even if it's not comfortable for us.


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