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Futurama ’04

There’s a storm on our horizon whose scope we are only starting to grasp: A future filled with tens — no, make that scores — of millions of very old people needing 24-hour care.


We live in Futurama today, or at least a polluted, gridlocked, potholed version of it. And 65 years later, as children born in 1939 are just reaching retirement age, I have seen the future again. It resides not in a streamlined fair pavilion with banners flying, but in a convalescent center where an elderly woman, her fragile hands fluttering like the wings of a moth, repeats: “Help me please. Help me please. Help me please.”

As she continues, other patients roll by her wheelchair while in the near distance staff look on kindly and attentively. The hallway is clean and well-decorated, the rooms beyond full of furniture nicer than that in my house. But there is no help for the poor woman, deep in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease.

Anyone who has never visited a nursing home or convalescent center needs to do so as soon as possible to witness the triple failures of government, private sector and nuclear family in solving one of our most intractable problems. Then, after that sober dose of reality, the visitor might consider what looms before us late-booming boomers who came of age in the ’70s. There’s a storm on our horizon whose scope we are only starting to grasp: A future filled with tens — no, make that scores — of millions of very old people needing 24-hour care. American families have fewer children than ever these days, but one population is sure to grow and grow quickly: The one I see when I visit the convalescent center.

Politicians talk about this, but there’s a tyranny of numbers at work that will probably be bigger than anything we or they anticipate. One estimate, and not the largest one I’ve read, projects a $45 trillion shortfall between government outlays and revenues to keep Social Security and Medicare solvent for the boomers. And this in a nation that already has 43 million uninsured people and double-digit inflation for medical services.

Given economics’ status as a “dismal science” with as much foresight, at times, as a Magic 8 Ball, we might simply grin at this huge number. But the gap will be there. No economist I’ve encountered doubts its scope or inevitability, and even Alan Greenspan now utters the unthinkable: Reduce benefits to the elderly. A serious but rarely acknowledged aspect of this mess comes from my generation’s lack of faith that the gap can ever be closed.

From what I’ve heard, younger folks have even less hope for their twilight years. The thrifty and farsighted among us buy long-term-care insurance and sock money away into stocks and retirement funds. Others keep piling up debt and sigh, “Well, I’ll work until I die.” I’ve heard that several times. But what if congestive heart failure or Alzheimer’s comes, years before the Grim Reaper? To think that private plans are enough to keep society working is ludicrous. How can we expect our personal safety nets to hold us when there will be millions of other old folks, many of them obese, all of them possessing nothing, yet badly needing long-term care?

In very dark moments, I imagine my peers and me in 2039, Futurama’s centennial. In the hallway of a convalescent center, our frail hands flap in the air as we ask for help. Our long-term insurance has expired after our provider went bankrupt, and we have no guardians with powers of attorney to save us. Clutching teal-colored plastic bags labeled “patient’s belongings,” we are literally kicked to the curbs outside. There, in the shadows of a crumbling interstate system not unlike the ones shown at the World’s Fair a century before, we join other homeless 90-year-olds to scrounge in dumpsters.

I just won an eBay auction for a 1939 Futurama pin, and I plan to start wearing it. I have seen the future. Someone, anyone, help us please. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond.

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