Aging Women in an Age of National Selfishness

Times Staff Writer

The title of her keynote talk before the Western Gerontological Society's 31st annual meeting here was "Power and Justice for Older Women: The Feminization of Poverty," but Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) addressed what she views as an alarming new mind-set in America: selfishness.

"America has always stood up for what was right, for helping people in need as we would help members of our family," Schroeder said. "We see now a new mind-set. We are not a family anymore but a team. You only worry about your team. And if you only pick millionaires on your team, you don't have to worry.

"If we stand for a celebration of selfishness in this country, that is wrong," Schroeder said. She added that justice involves positive action, not merely an absence of injustice.

"We have hard work ahead of us to provide justice and power for the elderly," she said. "We have more people living in poverty--more children than at any time since 1964, and more older people."

Actor-producer-director John Houseman, in concluding the five-day meeting with a talk on "Current Trends in the Mass Media: Their Impact on Power and Justice for Older Americans," noted that "we have created an enormous and quite different problem: longevity." Indeed, it was America's increasing longevity--and the problems that arise from it--that was the essence of the conference.

Schroeder, a member of the House Judiciary and Armed Forces committees and co-chair of the congressional caucus on women's issues, expressed a special concern for older women.

"In the age group over 65, 60% are women," she said. "Of elderly unmarried women--widowed, divorced or never married--25% are below the poverty line. Another 25% are just about at the poverty line.

"We were a society that said, 'Stay home, raise your children, take care of your family.' Now we say, 'The joke's on you. You have no pension. Go figure it out yourself.'

"A very large percentage of America's women are one man (a husband) away from poverty."

Schroeder spoke of "a Norman Rockwell view" of the American family: two children, a father who is the wage earner and a mother who is a homemaker.

Fading of Extended Family

"That is 17% of America's families today," she said. "We also still operate on the basis of the extended family. It just doesn't happen that way anymore."

She told of an informal poll that her then-8-year-old daughter took of her classmates. It indicated that "when somebody said 'grandparents,' they thought of an airplane" that would take them to visit.

Schroeder added that the law has not kept pace with the changes in our society, giving as an example the matter of grandparents' visitation rights in cases of divorce.

Women are also especially affected by two other kinds of discrimination--educational and age, she said.

"A study of middle-aged women found that 25% of women between 45 and 54 had not completed high school," she said. "We (the nation) told them that if they got married and had children we'd take care of them. If they go back to the workplace now, lots of luck.

"And for women over 65, half have not finished high school.

Double Standard

"Age discrimination is rampant among women. Men age but women rot. People say, 'Dye your hair' or, 'It's nice you've kept your figure' or, 'Now that you're past 25 it's nice of your husband to hang in there with you' or, 'When is he going to trade you in for two 20s?' They don't say things like that to men. . . .

"Age discrimination is serious when women apply for an apprenticeship, scholarships, fellowships, on-the-job training. Women are told they are too old.

"There also is the matter of pension inequalities. The jobs women do are pink-collar jobs that don't have fringe benefits, the No. 1 of which is a pension."

Schroeder, a prime mover in pension reform legislation passed by Congress last year, called for Social Security reforms that would benefit women, who "still put much more money in than they get out." The reason, she said, is that women contribute to Social Security but usually take a share of the husband's contributions since the amount is generally larger. In the process they forfeit their own contributions to Social Security.

Cut in Legal Aid Funds

The congresswoman also spoke of cuts in funds for legal aid, an area that especially affects women.

"Legal aid has been zeroed out. How can you have justice if you can't afford to go to court?" she said. "Eighty percent of legal aid users are women--women with children, women heads of household, older women."

Schroeder referred to the current budget debate in Congress as "a very tough thing," then said:

"Let's put Social Security aside because that is separate (from the rest of the national budget). Of all the other revenue we will receive, 83% to 87%--estimates vary--already is committed to just two things: defense and interest on the national debt.

"The money has been squeezed out. We used to speak of guns and butter. Now there is no butter left."

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John Houseman, 82, an Academy Award winner who didn't begin his acting career until he was in his 70s, won warm applause and a standing ovation at the annual meeting's 630th and final session.

"I have spent a great deal of my time ignoring the entire question of age," he said. "I went into the theater in my 30s (into writing, directing and producing), and I woke up around my late 60s still thinking of myself very genuinely as a promising boy.

"At 70 I changed careers and became an actor, and I was very busy the next 10 years. Not until I hit my early 80s did I begin to think about age."

A vigorous octogenarian ("I pursue my career every day"), Houseman appears in "The Paper Chase" on TV, in theatrical and television films and in commercials and gives lectures across the country. The day he was in Denver he had flown in from New York and planned to return to Los Angeles that evening.

Sterile Retirement

He told of lecturing recently at a retirement community in Arizona.

"I arrived at a place of beauty surrounded by walls, green spaces and seven-- seven --golf courses," he said. "It has now about 18,000 residents and expects to house 70,000 to 80,000 by the end of the century. To live there you have to be over 55.

"As I left I was filled with a kind of sadness. These people had no economic problems, they had beautiful homes, they had seven golf courses--and total sterility.

"Where our society has gone to great lengths to make an effort to eliminate segregation, they had gone to great lengths to make segregation. It seemed very sad to me."

Houseman expressed skepticism about the need for mandatory retirement ages, such as 60 or 65, and spoke of creative people in the arts who continued performing or teaching into their 80s and 90s. But he admitted retirement can mean lifting a burden.

Attitudes on Retirement

"I'm sure a great many people look forward to retirement," he said. "They regard their job as a necessary and unwelcome chore. If you are freed from the yoke of unwelcome labor, the whole question of how you spend your later years becomes totally different than if you've enjoyed and savored your work.

"There is the whole question of the human relation of one part of society and the rest of society. We have created a problem of the whole worship of youth. Age is a relative thing. There is no such thing as what constitutes a senior citizen.

"I work in a business where the whole fetish of youth is dangerous. Youth dominate the audience, and film makers gear the product to those they consider the audience--young people between 12 and 18.

"I made a film--not a good one--about four old men paying for a youthful crime in their old age. When the film was cut, there was suddenly this obsession with youth. They cut the plot concerning the old men and put in a lot of not very good love scenes and rotting flesh. It was typical of their thinking that kids would not be interested in older people.

A Growing Issue

"In a society in which the percentage of the old continues to grow and age continues to rise, society presumably is going to pay some attention to how we are going to deal with the problems of seniority."

Houseman accepted questions from the audience at the end of his talk. One person asked if he had found a satisfactory alternative to the retirement community he regards as sterile.

"No," he said. "I am sure the place is a delight to its inmates. But they are not benefiting society. No, I am not in favor of it. I wish they were more mixed up with the rest of society."

Another questioner referred to Houseman's first career in finance and later alluded to his commercials for the investment firm of Smith-Barney ("We make money the old-fashioned way. We earn it").

"I was in the family grain export business," he said. "I made a lot of money but I never enjoyed it. To my enormous gratification in 1929 I went bankrupt. After momentary embarrassment I finally got to do what I'd always wanted: go into the arts."

The questioner persisted with an inquiry about the day's stock market performance--up 24 points. Would Houseman care to make a prediction on the stock market?

Houseman paused for the proper dramatic effect: "I regard that," he said archly, "as a frivolous question." That ended his talk and led to a standing ovation.

Later Houseman answered one more question: What have you not done that you'd like to do?

The energetic octogenarian answered quickly: "So far, nothing. I hope something will come up."

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