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The most productive society in the world is slowly realizing that it has not found the answer, or answers. The problem has crept upon the nation and caught it almost unawaresthe unanticipated result of shifts that in themselves seemed to be clearly progressive. Partly, it has arisen from the policy of progressive management in industry, which has standardized 65 as a retirement age for janitors and vice presidents; partly, it is a result of the U.S.'s increasing urbanization. Back in 1900, 600 out of every 1,000 Americans lived on farms, where grandparents remained part of the family even if it meant moving into the attic bedroom. In 1960, only 87 in 1,000 Americans still lived on farms, and there is no room for three generations in a city apartment or a suburban housing development.
In a society that tends to judge who a man is by what he does, the vigorous oldster suffers a special stress. Says Boston Gerontologist Natalie Cabot: "Nobody ever suddenly becomes Negro or Jewish, but people do suddenly become retired. They become a minority almost overnight, and it hits them hard, usually within the first three weeks." A retired man finds himself not only without a job but without an "identification tag'': someone accustomed to thinking of himself as a railroad man or an insurance executive is often seriously disoriented when he finds that he is no longer anything at all.
Staying Put. Surveys show that most oldsters (90%) stay put in the town where they have always lived before retirement overtook them. But few any longer live with their children. This traditional solution is packed with hazard in contemporary America. The young people's sense of their right to live their own lives conflicts with the Biblical injunction to "honor thy father and thy mother." The old folks' conviction that "I don't want to be a burden" conflicts with "after all I've done for them, they owe it to me."
"The kinship relationship of the older person has changed," says Professor Emeritus Ernest Watson Burgess of the University of Chicago. "My grandfather lived on a farm. His sons would come to him for advice about farming. Daughters would ask grandmother about how to raise their children. Now the son goes to the agricultural agent for advice, and the one thing the daughter knows isshe isn't going to raise her children the way her mother raised her."
Often the oldsters take their diminished income and move into a back-street boardinghouse or walk-up flat, clinging to the places they have known, while the winters grow colder and old friends fewer. Often they feel increasingly isolated and rejected as the visits from children become rarerseeing the doctor more and more often, penny-pinching their fixed income against the upward-creeping cost of living, and trying to keep something by against the high cost of dying.
In fact, the old in general are less afraid of dying than of contracting a long and expensive illness that would make them a disastrous burden to their families or force them into the charity wards. People who might be able to live reasonably well on a modest income do not dare to spend it, feel compelled instead to scrape and save every penny against the day that they may fall ill.