Boomers' unhealthy appetite for longevity (National Post, Oct, 15, 2003)

John Paul II is fading. Reports suggest he will go "gently into that good night" as one would expect from a man of his extraordinary faith. His peace of mind is perhaps reinforced by assured access to excellent end-of-life care. Will Canadian Boomers have such a guarantee when they need it? It will soon be more than a hypothetical question.

The Conference Board of Canada's just-published report, Performance and Potential 2003-04, paints a worrisome picture about our ageing population. On average Canadians now die at 77. So death will claim the first wave of Boomers only in about 20 years. But disabilities, with all that that entails, kick in around age 66. And medical costs in the 65-74 cohort are quadruple those of 45-54 year olds.

The "wellderly" may never require extensive medical care, but by 2011 -- that's soon in bureaucratic terms -- many "illderly" will be demanding the excellence in medical care they have always exacted in life's other domains. Sick Boomers will be especially grumpy as it becomes clear that adventure racing, lowfat protein smoothies, Hummers, and preppy Gap wardrobes couldn't buy eternal youth after all.

Taking for granted the fawning public attentiveness to Boomer values they have hitherto experienced, the newly smarting "Boo Hoo-mers" will protect their evolving interests by voting only for aggressive health-care advocates. Canada will need money for any number of national projects, but fragile oldies have only one thing on their minds. This huge majority won't vote for higher quality day care -- unless it's for themselves, not kids.

Moreover, Boomers are not like previous generations of seniors who meekly accepted their own marginalization. These are the folks who staged university sit-ins, burned bras, stormed legislatures and believed they invented sex. They know all about organization and the power of group pressure. And they are marinated in the greatest collective sense of entitlement in modern history. Getting old, sick and powerless wasn't ever on the Boomer agenda. Instead of "go gently," in a few years we'll see a lot of "rage, rage against the dying of the light." Woe to those in their warpath.

Other highly industrialized, longevity-achieving countries are in the same boat. You can see harbingers of what's to come in their news stories. A British old age pensioner got fed up with council tax rises. He joined up with Is It Fair, a nationwide council tax protest group, announcing to the media: "There are 10 million pensioners on modest means and we are going to show Mr. Blair the door unless he does something very quickly. We will bring him down. We are the angry grey army ... It's High Noon for Tony. Mr. Blair is going to reap the whirlwind."

Council tax rage! Imagine when it's about medical deficits. We complain about health care today, but in 10 years we will no doubt look wistfully back at what will seem by comparison like medicare's halcyon years.

You can't expect people willingly to reduce their prospects for a longer life simply because it costs a bomb to support them. Given medicare's dismal history in meeting the challenge to provide universal care with cutting edge resources, we would be foolish to assume we can simply muddle through when the going gets exponentially tougher.

It has long seemed inevitable that some form of private health care will be adopted alongside medicare. Conservatives' attempts to engage a national debate on its benefits haven't budged the Liberals, so unfortunately private medicine may impose itself at a time of terrible crisis, with a powerful "grey army" staring down stubborn ideologues in a bloody showdown at the Not-OK corral.

A woman in my community died recently at the age of 90. She was a poet and an artist, strong-willed and fiercely, idealistically engaged with life until the end in spite of a lifetime of bad luck. She was also the sole caregiver to a father who lived to the age of 106. I met her once, already somewhat frail herself, pushing his wheelchair. I inanely congratulated him on his longevity. She blurted out with pent-up anguish, "When is it my turn?" Too sad.

That won't be my story. Given my family's crummy genetic history, I won't make it to extreme old age. But that's OK. What good is longevity if your children are burdened with your care into their own old age? I wish I could say I trusted my government enough to be sure mine wouldn't be. But I don't.

We can't say we weren't warned. Millions of Boomers will soon be crying, "It's still my turn!" It may not be High Noon just yet, but it's pretty late in the morning to be dawdling in bed with the covers over our heads.

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