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Get ready to change Ma's diapers

In the New York Times this past week, Princeton University Professor Hendrik Hartog wrote about the old days when families took care of elderly people. 

His conclusion: The arrangements whereby Grandma had the side room in the house were "only occasionally happy."Elder care one hundred years ago was, according to Hartog, "a very dark world." 

My own grandmother cut short her education at St. Cloud State University in the 1920s after she got a letter from home that said she was needed to care for her aging parents. 

"When I got in the front door, I slammed my suitcase down on the floor," she told me later. "It was a bitter pill to swallow."

Her career dreams over, she married my grandfather at age thirty. Over the next ten years, she bore six children and took care of her mother, who was in diapers, and her father, who was insane. 

Eventually, they shipped her father off to the county poor farm. But Great Grandma remained in the third room of the three-room house, an invalid, cared for by Grandma, for over a decade. 

The good old days! 

And welcome to our future. 

Nobody wants to talk about it, but there is no plan in place to finance care for the huge wave of older people who are coming along and coming along fast.  

At a conference on the topic last week at the Hubert H. Humphery Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, I heard more indignation and despair than hope. 

The first speaker, a reporter from the New York Times, told her grim story of managing her own mother's care on the East Coast. In the end, to find a nursing home that wasn't a hell hole the family forked over $14,000 per-month. 

The second speaker, from California, congratulated Minnesota on being the AARP's highest ranked state for long-term care and wondered aloud how we are going to keep it up.  

The third speaker, Lucinda Jesson, Gov. Mark Dayton's Commissioner of Health and Human Services, cheerfully reported Minnesota's plans for financing long-term care in the future. 

As far as I could tell, the plan is to run a big public service announcement campaign to encourage people to buy long-term care insurance!

But first, they need to find long-term care insurance companies which 1) have an affordable product and 2) aren't on the verge of going broke from selling plans they can't back up!

Oh, there are other parts to the plan. 

"Families are our hidden resource," Jesson chirped cheerfully. 

"We need to encourage personal responsibility," echoed legislators on a panel, defaulting to the political mantra of the moment. 

Translation: Y'all better get ready to change Ma's diapers.  

The excellent nursing home system in Minnesota, particularly in rural Minnesota, was built for several good reasons.

First, people couldn't adequately care for the frail elderly in their homes. Women, who did the bulk of that work, wanted and needed careers of their own.

Second, because most adult kids moved off the farm to the suburbs to work, many older people were left back home with nobody to give them care. 

Finally, caring, trained professionals do a better job of changing Ma's diaper. Although there is still potential for failures and abuse, in a professionalized, well-regulated system, those chances are fewer. 

Our eldercare system worked. Now, thanks to the short-sighted politics of "all taxes are bad," it is wobbling. 

Today, our short-sighted, whiny and greedy generation seems to think they are going to retire, play golf for about fifteen years and then ascend directly into heaven. 

Even the few wise people who save for the nursing home have put away only a fraction of the funds needed.

Here's betting that a public service campaign to get people to save for assisted living or the nursing home will utterly fail. 

Nobody thinks old age will happen to them.

The solution? 

It is time to go back to the old days. By that, I mean forty years ago, not eighty. 

Just as our visionary ancestors banded together in the 1960s to build the nursing home system we benefit from today, we need to band together to build an even better system for our parents, and not so long after that, ourselves. 

We need to build an eldercare system worth living in. 

And, we need to do what our less-prosperous but smarter ancestors did: Raise taxes on ourselves for the purpose.  

If we don't, you'd better get ready to change Ma's diapers or wave $100 bills in the face of some schmuck off the street who will.  

(Bergeson is studying rural long-term care under a two-year fellowship from the Bush Foundation.)