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The American Fetish for Elderly Elites

The United States has two speeds when it comes to older people: sycophancy for the powerful, contempt for everyone else.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

I think a lot about the time Prince Philip flipped his Land Rover. Not so much about the crash itself, wherein the 97-year-old British royal collided in 2019 with another car on a country road. More about the preemptively aggressive statement Edmund King, president of the Automobile Association, gave after it, defending the honor of elderly drivers: “Many commentators use high profile car crashes involving elderly drivers as a reason to call for bans or restrictions on older drivers,” he told The Telegraph. “If driving restrictions based on age and safety were introduced we would be more likely to restrict young drivers rather than older drivers.”

It was a wacky artifact of a culturally inconsistent sensitivity around age. It’s also misleading: Teenagers do have high accident rates—much higher than the 70-to-79 age bracket’s (which, it should be noted, is also elevated). But it gets murkier when you dig deeper: In studies on both sides of the Atlantic claiming to show young drivers are more risky than old ones, teens often get compared to younger seniors—i.e., around age 75—but according to 2015 numbers on the AAA Foundation website, “fatal crash involvements per 100 million miles driven were the greatest for drivers age 80 and older.” In analysis the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety posted last year, 16-to-19-year-olds had a fatal vehicle crash involvement rate of 4.8 per 100 million miles driven, while individuals age 80 or over had a rate of 5.4. But there King was, all the same, defensive at the idea that such a high-profile crash might lead to more scrutiny of senior drivers. (He wouldn’t be alone, either: Policies that might institute testing provisions for elderly drivers analogous to those almost universally applied to young drivers are routinely denounced as discriminatory.)

I thought about the AA president’s solicitous regard for Prince Philip’s ego this week while reading The New Yorker’s story about Senator Dianne Feinstein’s alleged cognitive deterioration. And not just because an ex-aide explicitly compared asking the oldest member of the Senate to retire to taking “the car keys away from an elderly relative.” According to top sources in the Capitol, the senator’s colleagues have been helping to cover for her declining health for years, all while applying delicate and ineffective pressure to get her to retire.

In the United States, we have wildly polarized norms when it comes to the elderly, pandering to them when convenient and otherwise doggedly ignoring them and pretending that we ourselves are immortal. We also tend to treat a certain class of seniors as the only ones who matter, flattering senators into thinking they can still do long division, while assuming families and communities can pay for long-term care we don’t fund by hosting bake sales or something. This is how we “respect” our elders: by letting them keep the keys to two-ton highway projectiles and the nuclear codes but abandoning nearly all other questions of their basic welfare and place in society.

When Joe Biden stumbled in early debates and public appearances in 2019 and early this year, concerns about the health of the man who might soon have more power and influence than any other single person on earth were quickly condemned and dismissed as “ageist.” Rather than treat the matter of a sitting senator’s cognitive function with the seriousness it deserved, Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reportedly helped conceal Feinstein’s alleged condition, apparently planting an aide in the Judiciary Committee to make sure the Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett hearings “didn’t go off the rails.” And as reporter Jane Mayer notes, both Senators Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd “were widely known by the end of their careers to be non–compos mentis”—although not so widely known that anyone saw fit to inform the public. It’s hard to leave the piece with anything but the impression that the people we’ve elected to represent us prioritize tact over accountability.

We care far less about the elderly, or their intrinsic rights and dignity, when it comes to basic services for the masses, rather than the liberties and egos of the car-owning, office-holding elite. While more than half of workers aged 50 or over report being forced out of jobs, few of them can actually afford to retire. Over 26 million Americans age 60 or over struggle with monthly expenses, and as of 2017, some 4.7 million were living in poverty as defined by the Congressional Research Service, the highest rate of poverty being among those 80 and older. The country’s elderly are increasingly forced to work as they age, and those who can’t typically wind up in nursing homes with poorly paid and overworked attendants, with resulting care quality no one is happy with. Social isolation is rampant, as many as 50 percent of those over age 80 reporting chronic loneliness, a condition research suggests “contributes to a cycle of illness and health care utilization.”

Culturally, American society papers over these realities by pretending the elderly are invisible or stereotyping them into occupying less space, having fewer needs. The richness of their lives is rarely acknowledged or represented in popular culture, and where they are depicted at all, it is often without agency or sexuality, their passions labeled “cute”—a word less affectionate than insulting.

“Respect your elders” may be a mantra that extends to offering a seat on the bus, but not necessarily to investing in public transit so that the elderly don’t have to drive. (In vast swaths of the U.S., losing one’s car means losing one’s ability to perform the basic tasks of life maintenance, including finding food or seeing loved ones. That’s a crisis created by current policy, not a blanket reason to keep people on the road.)

Meanwhile, we elect disproportionately old politicians to govern our country and decry any attempt to discuss their faculties as bigoted. American gerontocracy mirrors American ageism—as if we think the cruelty shown to the majority of the elderly population can be canceled out by excessive deference to the few. You see this dynamic reproduced elsewhere in our politics: Republicans pander to seniors—sometimes to the point of parody—while also gunning to slash or privatize their benefits.

With perhaps the exception of a small New Hampshire town where a band of libertarians let bears take over rather than regulate backyard bear-feeding, most people in this country can accept some limit on individual freedom if it serves a social good or prevents harm to others. It’s why almost no one believes in getting rid of taxes entirely, and 71 percent of respondents oppose any cuts at all to Social Security. It’s also why we accept that people can get ticketed for speeding, or face charges for murder.

Elderly politicians’ lock on our national politics has consequences. Some are ideological—like conservative social mores, or prioritizing current expediency over the welfare of anyone likely to be alive in 2050, by which point we could have killed off half the earth’s species and be facing chronic pandemics while the streets melt. Others, as The New Yorker story makes clear, complicate government in a more ideologically neutral but potentially erratic way.

The proper reaction to a sitting senator who reportedly can’t remember recent conversations she’s had—or a prince with an actual security detail totaling two vehicles—is scrutiny. The proper reaction to the crisis of poverty and abandonment of the elderly in the U.S. is horror and meaningful action. The elderly are entitled to basic services and dignity—which we should fight for. No one is entitled to the Judiciary Committee.