When elders in America find themselves alone and living in squalor, it's clear we've lost our way

Fannie Claussen is home again. After city inspectors condemned her small trailer, a volunteer effort made it possible for the 86-year-old woman to return to her cleaned-up space, free of filth, accumulated stuff and minus the kittens whose care she could not afford.

Had Claussen been deemed mentally incompetent, it's likely she would have been whisked away and placed somewhere out of sight, in one of those institutions staffed with unskilled, overworked and underpaid employees charged with tending the nation's citizens once they become too old, too poor and too demented for polite company.

Instead, Claussen will likely live out her days alone, not unlike a staggering number of America's elders who make good copy when they're discovered dead after three or four days; or when they are rescued from a fire by the latest hero; or when they reach the venerable age of 100 (if there is anyone around to notice); or when they are saved from themselves through a community effort--as happened in this instance.

Unless some hapless man or woman captures our fleeting attention, we lack both the time and inclination to give prolonged thought to the harsh conditions many of our old people endure on a daily basis. Those conditions present an unconscionable situation created by political and economic systems that increasingly marginalize the old and poor. At the same time, the social and familial structures that once formed a bulwark against the severity of the marketplace or the harshness of state authority are undergoing rapid meltdown.

At one time, words like "obligation" and "responsibility" carried with them a sense of honor: Meeting your obligations to others, taking care of your responsibilities, were honorable actions. These days, our culture's relentless message works to subvert the few remaining shreds that keep our increasingly tattered social fabric from altogether unraveling.

It starts with the nonsense we've come to believe about independence and individuality, those cherished characteristics of white America we pay homage to with almost religious fervor. The truth is, not one of us is independent: We live in a complex web of interdependency that includes not only other people, but also extends to the natural world. And our so-called individuality is merely skin deep: Strip away our puny thoughts, and we are nothing more than cosmic dust.

But accepting the interdependent reality of our existence and the illusory nature of what we perceive as our individual selves presents a daunting realization: We are not so important after all, and our seemingly insatiable appetites are self-indulgent side trips leading us away from any meaningful life.

Endless diversions serve both to keep any such awareness far from our consciousness and to ensure the triumph of the marketplace over vague human stirrings we ignore. If we discover that joy is to be had by simply acknowledging each other and reveling in the simple pleasure of being, who would be left to buy the endless stream of ever-new things that promise happiness but deliver only cheap thrills and credit card debt?

But acknowledging each other and our interdependence is a risky undertaking. Once we take that step, we enter the world of obligations and responsibilities--not the most comfortable place when every cultural message conspires to have you believe the notion that your first obligation and foremost responsibility is to yourself.

It's the acceptance of this ego-driven message that helps explain why situations similar to Fannie Claussen's may make the daily paper, but are in fact nothing out of the ordinary. We have seriously lost our way when elders in America find themselves alone and living in squalor.

We have adopted a convenient ideology of choice that lets us all off the hook. We smugly believe that people who end up like Claussen do so because of the choices they made in life. End of story. Make better choices, get better results. We have neither responsibility for such situations nor an obligation to ensure that such situations are no longer part of the American landscape. It all depends on the "individual."

We have become the near-perfect example of Adam Smith's atomized humans, occasionally bumping into each other but lacking any connection other than the most superficial. Our rituals, if ever we had any, are dying. Our sense of continuity is long gone. Our allegiance is to our amusements.

We have reached the end of the line, but aren't quite sure where we are or how we got here. And in the distance, all there is to see is beckoning neon and the flicker of a screen.

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