Because I am deeply committed to “occupying” our homestead, and there’s nobody to do some of the chores but me, I haven’t spent a lot of time with Occupy Nashville, but, at one of the General Assemblies I was able to attend, a young woman brought up an issue that, to me, is “the elephant in the room” in this whole movement. She said her grandma had just died, and the family was trying to figure out whether to let the bank take the house back, since she was behind on her mortgage, or to let Medicare take it to pay back her substantial hospital bills. Her grandma, she said, had been on the point of getting the house paid off when the company she had worked for most of her life renegged on its pension promises, so she had to refinance the house just to have money to live on.
To me, this is a prime example of one of the major processes that is impoverishing the middle class, one that nobody ever seems to talk about–between the rising costs of health care and “retirement homes,” most young people are not getting any kind of inheritance from their parents or grandparents. Instead, older peoples’ assets are sucked up by big corporations, whether in the guise of “elder care” for the healthy, or hospital care for the terminally ill, which is frequently insensitive and invasive, and, at great expense, prolongs the agony of death rather than the quality of life. I think a response to these widely accepted ripoffs needs to become a more conscious part of the demands of the Occupy movement. It’s certainly part of the reason why so many young people find themselves trapped in poverty these days.
“Retirement communities” that isolate the elderly, and futile attempts to prolong the lives the dying are both examples of how our society has monetized everything it possibly can, at the expense of human relationships–and inheritances. We need to return to multi-generational households, in which grandparents, among others, play an active role–and enrich their grand children’s lives by their presence. In one of her better moments, Hillary Clinton quoted the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” “The village” is based on long-term relationships. Our brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so on are called “relatives” for a reason–we’re supposed to RELATE with each other. In past, slower times, family members rarely traveled far, and stayed in relationship, for better or sometimes for worse. I’m not saying we have to go back to being ignorant peasants. We now know much more than we did two hundred years ago about how to communicate, how to maintain–or dissolve–boundaries, and many other aspects of human psychology and relationship. We have the opportunity to grow up as a species, and some of us, it seems, have the courage and strength to climb that ladder.
So, there’s our relationships with the living, and then there is the question of our relationship with death and dying. We have institutionalized our fear of death. The societal supposition is that we will do anything possible to keep someone from dying, often even if it means that a life support system is beating their heart and pumping their lungs for them while they lie there comatose. This is great for the Gross Domestic Product, it’s great for the hospitals and their staff, but it does nothing for the dying person and only sucks money out of the pockets of whoever is paying for their care.
It used to be that people died at home, surrounded by their families. Death was no stranger. Nearly everybody had seen someone, probably several someones, die. Now, people mostly die isolated in hospitals, surrounded by machines and jacked-up medical personnel. I humbly submit that this is not an improvement. We have become estranged from death. We need to muster up our courage and allow death back into our lives again. It just might help the world slip back into harmony.
This may seem to be a long way from the immediate concerns of the Occupy! movement, let alone the politics of the Green Party. But both the Occupy! movement and the Green Party are ultimately about a fundamental restructuring of society. It doesn’t get much more fundamental than death and family. If we’re serious, we have got to go there.
music: The Waterboys, “Let it Happen“