My friend and colleague Steve Moffic, who, like me, thinks of health care in the light of ethics and the religious impulse, told me about a remarkable movement among the elderly in Japan.
500 retirees have created the "Skilled Veterans Corps for Fukushima" and volunteered their services for work that doesn't require youthful muscles at the devastated Fukushima nuclear plant. Radiation levels make the work dangerous.
Here's how Kazuko Sasaki, a 72-year-old grandmother, explains her thinking: "My generation built these nuclear plants. So we have to take responsibility for them. We can't dump this on the next generation."
Yasuteru Yamada, also 72, initiated the project, because it "would be better to send men and women who have finished raising families and are in the sunset of their lives, rather than younger workers whose lives could be cut short by extreme radiation exposure." And Yamada, a third 72 year old, reported "I want to make the most of the time I have left."
Although Japanese culture is known for stronger communitarian values than we in the US live by, over the years my elderly patients often expressed sentiments that come from the same psychological and spiritual space. But contemporary medical ethics typically asks us to be suspicious of the altruistic stance. When our elderly patients say "I don't want to be a burden to my family" or "pay attention to the youngsters - I've lived my life," we interpret these sentiments as signs of depression and low self esteem. Sometimes that's what it is, but sometimes it represents the moral perspective that Yasuteru Yamada presented in his matter of fact way.
I'm working on ways to tap the altruism that is part of the aging process for many seniors. Working on behalf of making Medicare more efficient so that the next generation has a better shot at a good life isn't as dramatic as volunteering to work at Fukushima. But many seniors, myself included, agree with Kazuko Sasaki that our generation made the mess we're in and we can't in good conscience dump it on the next generation.
(See here for the NPR story about the Fukushima volunteers.)