New - and Controversial - Perspectives on the Elderly

Article excerpt

AGING AND OLD AGE

By Richard A. Posner

University of Chicago Press

363 pp., $29.95

American society is growing older every year. What increasing ranks of elderly people should do and what society should do for them in terms of Social Security, Medicare, and even assisted suicide have become huge issues. The effort to bring such issues into focus for policymakers is extremely difficult and almost always controversial.

"Aging and Old Age," by Richard A. Posner, chief justice of the Seventh US Court of Appeals, is one important attempt at such clarification, despite the fact that many will not agree with a number of his premises. Judge Posner brings extraordinary range to his subject. He is a seminal if controversial thinker on legal matters because of his sometimes single-minded economic analysis of the law. His reputation for looking imaginatively and originally at societal issues increasingly coming before the courts is substantiated by this book.

As if rotating a crystal, Posner takes aging and looks at it from every secular angle. Starting with Aristotle, he brings to his subject philosophy, economics, history, literature, social sciences, medicine, and the law. Posner clearly states his premises then methodically constructs his arguments, turning his observations round and round until each facet has an encapsulating paragraph.

The writing is not terribly technical, but it is dry. Readers will be impressed with the author's judicial thoroughness. One learns small facts. The suicide rate of older Americans grew in the 1980s even as their prosperity grew. Seniors are more likely to vote, but they are also more likely to avoid jury duty.

One also learns broad concepts. More stable societies tend to venerate the old more since their knowledge is more relevant to current realities. The more financially emancipated old people are, the less parents instill filial devotion in their children, and the less the grown children want their parents living with them. …