Friday, September 24, 2010

Twilight years. Friday, Sept. 24, 2010.

“Hope I die before I get old.” –“My Generation,” The Who, 1965

You might be surprised to find out that the highest suicide rate is not among teens, but actually among the elderly. In America, white males ages 65 and up have the highest suicide rate of all – 29 out of 100,000 of them take their own lives. There are plenty of reasons for this, such as suffering from illness or loneliness and depression from repeated losses. But I fear that suicide is going to increase in this age group over the next 10 or 20 years.

On a discussion forum about the recession, someone wrote, “My retirement plan is a Smith & Wesson.” He’s probably not alone. While the poverty rate for today’s seniors is unacceptably high, the poverty rate for tomorrow’s is likely to be higher, and many millions of people won’t know what to do.

My father is in his 80s and reaped the benefit of being born at the right time as well as being lucky. He dropped out of high school, but he was able to get a steady blue-collar union job. Although my mother also worked, the two of them together had no problem covering the costs of a nice house in the suburbs, nice cars, vacations to Walt Disney World and a college education for their offspring.

Dad was able to retire at 65 with two pensions, significant savings, and no debt. Social Security was the icing on the cake. He was able to purchase a 3-bedroom home and a luxury vehicle; when it came time for him to enter a retirement home, he was able to liquefy his assets and go on Medicaid.

The younger wave of Baby Boomers and the older half of Generation X are looking at a very different kind of future. Few of them work for unions and fewer of them have pensions. Instead, they have 401Ks, most of which lost most of their value in the stock market crash of 2008 and have yet to build back up.

Many of them purchased homes as investments for retirement, but when the housing bubble burst their homes lost as much as 75% of their value, sending many mortgages “under water.” Many of these homes will never again attain their original value.

The same people have been hit by a one-two punch of stagnant wages since 1975, and now a recession that has one of 10 Americans totally unemployed and an additional 15% underemployed. Put those two numbers together and you’re not looking at a recession anymore, but a depression. Those who have been laid off at 50 and above, according to a New York Times article this week, face the very real prospect of never being employed again.

Add to that the runaway cost of health care – which has quadrupled over the past generation – and the possible decrease, or even loss, of Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. The complete picture is that of two generations that will be facing retirement with little net worth and few safety nets.

America is America, and so of course there are millions of people who will have American Dream retirements full of trips to Hawaii and daily golf outings. But many millions of others will ask themselves the most basic questions: Where will I live? How will I afford my medication? What will I eat? And I fear that for many of these elderly, suicide may seem the only way out.

When health care was being debated earlier this year, some people said that the proposed plan would result in “death panels” for the elderly. This charge was never true, but I’m afraid that there are, in fact, going to be death panels of a sort. When seniors lose their jobs or must retire due to health problems, many of them will hear, “Sorry, you can’t pay off your mortgage by selling your home;” “Sorry, we cannot pay for your health care;” “Sorry, Social Security is no longer solvent;” “Sorry, there’s nothing in your 401k;” “Sorry, the food pantries are empty;” “Sorry, that medication costs $600 a month.”

To me, that sounds like a death panel. When survival is only for the fittest, our seniors will be among those who suffer the most.

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