While disembarking from a long flight recently, I was dismayed to watch a couple who seemed to be in their 50s openly roll their eyes and criticize another couple in their 60s or 70s who were holding up the line. The two elders were painstakingly removing their hand luggage from the overhead bins and making their way down the cramped aisles. Apparently they weren’t spry enough for folks who were just a decade or so younger. “Look at how much time they’re taking!” complained the relatively younger man.

We have a serious social disconnect over aging in the United States. While it was shocking for me to overhear such callous disregard for seniors expressed out loud, it was particularly egregious to hear it coming from people who in 10 to 20 years will likely be in a similar situation. We imagine aging is something that happens to everyone else but us.

Such cultural norms are consistent with the lack of public programs supporting the elderly. Certainly we have Social Security, providing the most modest of pensions, and Medicare offering a base level of medical insurance. But those programs are constantly in danger of being weakened by political opponents. And currently, no real nationwide program exists for the long-term care required in the last years of our lives.

In an interview on “Uprising,” I spoke with Eric Kingson, coauthor of “Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn’t Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All.” Kingson explained that it has been a Republican strategy for decades to divide young from old with the express goal of weakening Social Security while claiming that by the time young folks are old enough to draw from the fund that they have paid into, the money will have run out because today’s elderly are simply living too long and drawing too much money. He said that in the 1980s, “we were told that people like me, baby boomers, were being cheated by the old of the day. Today, we’re told that younger people are being cheated by baby boomers.”

People are living much longer than they used to, and we are facing a coming elder boom. By 2050 the population of seniors in the United States will have nearly doubled in number compared to today, and those 65 and older will consist of almost 84 million people. While this fact is used to scare us, it is actually incredibly good news. If longevity is a popular personal goal, why then is such a statistic a source of collective fear? We ought to celebrate the fact that people are living longer and able to enjoy retirement, grandchildren and more in the golden years of their lives.

Elders who can count themselves among the top 1 percent of American earners have little to worry about financially. They simply have the best care money can buy — end of story. But for seniors who identify with the 99% of Americans, aging and retirement can mean a subsistence level of income, isolation and poor care, or even lack of care.

Ai-Jen Poo is director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and author of the new book “The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America.” She opened her book with an anecdote about her own grandfather, who near the end of his life needed more intensive care than his family was able to provide. He was moved into a nursing home — a place so depressing that he died within months. In an interview on “Uprising,” Poo explained to me how the lack of options for eldercare today is the result of “a situation that has come into being because we’ve never actually accounted for the work that goes into supporting families and caring for families across generations.” In fact, she cited how “the U.S. is one of the few countries that doesn’t have any social programs in place for long-term care, comprehensively. … We don’t have a solution for the long-term care needs of the future; we don’t have a plan.”

Our own social aversion to aging goes hand in hand with the political shortsightedness of our lack of eldercare programs. Yet fiscal conservatives raise the specter of financial inefficiency and the bureaucracy of “big government” in order to justify the “every man for himself” approach to aging. It is the same reasoning offered up as an excuse to weaken or eliminate Social Security and Medicare.

Kingson explained that it is simply a matter of national priorities. If Social Security is in financial trouble in several decades, then adopting a fix, such as increasing the $118,000 taxable income cap, will easily address any shortfalls. “These are social choices; these are political choices,” said Kingson. He contextualized, “This is not about economic possibilities — we are the richest nation in the world, and we have a very modest Social Security system.” Similarly, the extremely low pay of home health-care workers who make up the nation’s fastest-growing job sector, is a result of skewed national priorities. In her book, Poo details how despite the growing demand, many home-care workers struggle to secure a living wage, being exempt from minimum wage laws in the U.S. The exemption goes back to New Deal-era political negotiations that attempted to appease Southern lawmakers by leaving out a largely black domestic workforce from minimum wage protections.

Today, people of color are still disproportionately represented among home health-care workers, in particular women and undocumented immigrants. Worker advocates had been hopeful that the U.S. Labor Department would pave the way for better wages and protections, but last month, Federal District Court Judge Richard Leon struck down a rule change that would have extended U.S. minimum wage and overtime pay laws to the nearly 2 million home health-care workers in the country.

But, as with Social Security, it is simply a matter of national and social priorities. Well-paid workers who are content in their jobs have dignity, and in turn they treat their wards with the dignity and respect that ought to always accompany old age. Poo paraphrased a prescient quote by Rosalyn Carter: “There are only four kinds of people in the world: people who are caregivers, or will be caregivers, people who need care, or will need care.”

There is a fifth kind: people who can afford to have the best care money can buy and who relentlessly lobby to strip the rest of us of the right to age with dignity. Among them is former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, who famously said Social Security was “a milk cow with 310 million tits.” Simpson, who has also referred to seniors as a “wretched group” and “greedy geezers,” is known for his “hefty speaking fees and expensive lifestyle.”

The fabulously wealthy among us hardly miss the minuscule taxes they pay, and they will likely not have to rely on Social Security checks, poorly paid home health-care workers or depressing nursing homes. The 1 percent can remain exceedingly comfortable until the end of their lives, hiring all the help they need. It is the rest of us who ought to prioritize the needs of the elderly, for ultimately it is our own future that we otherwise imperil. We have to stop separating ourselves from seniors. If we are lucky enough to survive into our golden years, we had better hope that our public support systems have caught up with our needs, or else we need to work hard now to create such systems.

Wait, before you go…

If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface. We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.

Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.

Support Truthdig