You've Come a Long Way, Granny

Unsealed Gerontology Center time capsule reveals what a difference 27 years has made in the condition of senior citizens.

IT WOULD HAVE done their hearts good – those hopeful dreamers who sealed a time capsule 27 years ago at the dedication of the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center – to see election 2000, as candidates from both parties jockey for position on the day’s hot-button issues: beefing up Medicare and shoring up Social Security.
In February, the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology unearthed the capsule filled with predictions on the politics and science of aging from the likes of Harry Belafonte, Michael DeBakey, Buckminster Fuller, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne and others. Twenty-five letters were placed under the courtyard of the new center during the dedication in 1973. Unsealed, they reveal a generation of seniors hard-pressed by America’s ascendant youth culture but full of hopes for the future.
“Today the status of the elderly in relation to the rest of society is largely characterized by separation, neglect and actual hostility on the part of the non-elderly and even by some of them,” wrote Ollie Randall, a New York social worker who was 82 in 1973 when he wrote his letter.
Virtually every contributor drew a contrast between how older people were treated in 1973 and a hoped for change by 2000. James Birren, who was the dean when the time capsule was buried, read the words of singer and actor Belafonte:
“I predict that in the year 2000 we will see a more prominent and contributive participation in all facets of our society by our senior citizens,” he wrote. “The wanton waste of older people atrophying in an active society will be almost eliminated and our own civilization will really become a true and just society by honoring and utilizing our elders, as opposed to casting them adrift in a sea of indifference.”
The time capsule also contained copies of the Feb. 12, 1973, Los Angeles Times and New York Times and the Feb. 13 USC Daily Trojan. Vietnam dominated their front pages, with the release of 116 American POWs taking center stage. A men’s store promised “no suit over $58,” and the very latest in electronic technology was a desktop telephone answering machine for $139.50. You could buy a custom three-bedroom home with maids’ quarters, a pool and a view in Beverly Hills’ Trousdale Estates for $225,000. “Laugh-in” and “Gunsmoke” were running on prime-time television and Fiddler on the Roof, Deliverance and Last Tango in Paris were playing at movie theaters.

IT WAS VERY much a man’s world. Every byline on the front pages of the Los Angeles and New York Times was male, the mastheads of both papers listed only men, and all but one of the op-ed articles were by men. And, men wrote all 25 letters in the time capsule.
“Obviously, we wouldn’t do that today,” says dean of gerontology Edward L. Schneider. “But in 1973, seniors were also in a most precarious situation. Man-datory retirement was common. Pension plans weren’t portable. Inflation was rampant. Medicare coverage was thin. Nursing homes were a scandal and hippies were shouting ‘don’t trust anyone over 30.’ Poor, sick and elderly was a stereotype that was true for all too many seniors.”
In his letter, Benjamin Spock, whose child-rearing books helped raise baby boomers, expressed hope that in 2000 “there will be no forced retirement, no segregation, no penury, no condescension, and that they (seniors) will make the decision about all matters that affect them.”
Irving S. Wright, head of the American Geriatrics Society, predicted that euthanasia would become widely accepted by 2000, adding that “compassion is to be preferred to compulsive zeal to prolong life whatever the cost and the results.” He qualified his predictions with the caveat that they could all be upset by variables such as “a catastrophic nuclear war precipitated by the malfunction of a few cells in the brain of one man who happens to be in a strategic position.”
Noting that medical research had extended the human life span from 47 to 70 years between 1900 and 1973, DeBakey, the famed Texas heart surgeon, expressed hope that by 2000 “society as a whole will not only show greater humanitarian concern for this segment of our population, but will take better advantage of the wisdom, experience and skills acquired by the elderly.”
Now in his ninth decade and still practicing medicine, conducting research and writing, DeBakey has become a living example that some of the hopes from 27 years ago have come true.

– Bob Calverley

Back to the Future

The following excerpts are taken from the 25 letters, statements and predictions that were sealed in the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Time Capsule on February 12, 1973.

Idaho Senator Frank Church, chairman, U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging: “Perhaps in the year 2000 the Senate may no longer have need of a Senate Committee on Aging…”

Leonard Davis, founder of the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology: “By the year 2000 there will be many more older people in the population. But they will not be problem people. They will be participating people, innovators, leaders.”

John B. Martin, U.S. Commissioner on Aging: “Family life and relationships will change but the family will continue as a major mainstay and as a mutually supportive kinship group.”

Richard Nixon, president of the United States: “It is my great personal hope that by the year 2000 the work we have begun will have been completed, that we will have brought about a new outlook toward aging – an attitude that does not view the elderly as a burden to society but rather as a rich national resource.”

Ronald Reagan, governor of California: “In the year 2000, I predict older persons will be viewed as a most valuable resource in our society. People from age 60 to well into their 90s will offer their experiences, skills and wisdom to meet social problems of the day.”

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Illustration by A.J. Garces

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