Neither one gets it.

Both presidential candidates have the same misguided perception of one fifth of the population -- the people they call "seniors." And when they push the senior button on the campaign trail, all they talk about is pills and bills, Medicare and Social Security, entitlements and benefits.

They don't ask what older men and women can do for the country. It's all about what the country can do for seniors. And so the politicians perpetuate the image of the older American as a greedy geezer with a hand out saying, gimme gimme gimme.

This is the senior political ghetto. To be sure, Medicare and Social Security demand the nation's attention. Much is at stake in both programs, for current beneficiaries and future ones. But it's not just a senior issue, nor the only issue of interest to older Americans.

Yet, with benign smiles and righteous rhetoric, officials keep singling out seniors and then promise to cover drugs in Medicare and to safeguard Social Security.

"We have a moral responsibility to honor America's seniors," said President Bush at the Republican National Convention. "Soon every senior will be able to get prescription drug coverage, and nothing will hold us back."

Same with the Democrats. "Protecting Seniors" is a banner headline on their official Web site. "John Kerry and John Edwards are committed to fighting for America's seniors by protecting the programs they rely on."

The details on how to fix these programs tend to get lost in the senior slugfest. "When it comes to Medicare, the big drug companies come first, the insurance companies come second and seniors come last. Well, I'm going to put you first," Kerry told a town hall meeting of seniors in St. Louis. "We have a plan for a real prescription drug benefit for seniors."

Several days later, President Bush fought back in Battle Creek, Mich.: "We have a moral responsibility to make sure our seniors get good health care. I went to Washington to solve problems. . . . We've strengthened and modernized Medicare and we're not turning back."

By focusing on entitlements in connection with older voters, political leaders define this population mainly as a burden on the country instead of an asset.

This image does not fit the new reality of what it is to be an older adult. The latest evidence of good health in the bonus years comes from a Canadian study published this month.

"Warnings found in media headlines and delivered by politicians about disasters to be visited upon society because of population aging have blown things way out of proportion," explained Janet Fast of the University of Alberta, who followed the lives of older men and women. "Our findings contradict stereotypes of the sedentary, unproductive and dependent retiree couch potato."

All the research shows that while a significant fraction is frail and needy, the majority is healthy and productive.

So why aren't the candidates pitching to this new majority? Where are the initiatives to engage this energetic population? Who is campaigning for reforms in the workplace, in education and in government to harness the talents of this burgeoning population?

It's fine for the president to reassure graying baby boomers that Social Security is safe for them. But how about articulating a vision of what older men and women could do in the decades after retirement?

Why not target seniors to work in national service programs such as AmeriCorps? So far, these programs are mostly aimed at youth. But older people are at a stage when they want to give back to communities. And in return for service, they might also welcome help with college costs, since many are going to school to learn and gain new skills.

Yes, Medicare and Social Security are critical issues. But the senior agenda is broader. Perhaps this comes as a surprise to politicians, but after passing through the milestones of adulthood -- raising a family, earning a living -- many Americans shift sights from short-term interests to long-term concerns. They worry about what kind of world they will leave for their children.

About a week ago a group gathered on the Mall to celebrate National Grandparents Day by launching the project -- a bipartisan effort to change the dialogue about seniors. The average age of first-time grandparents is 48, the group points out, about the time that men and women begin the transition to this new life stage. The message "for all the members of our generation: Work and vote for the future of today's children," said anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson at the kickoff event.

That will help overcome ageism on the campaign trail. "Politicians feed this the worst. We're greedy old geezers, greedy old grannies. We're always greedy and old. We're a burden," says former U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder, one of the founders of GrannyVoter. Yet today's grandparent is more likely to be a steward of than a burden on the next generation.

So the next time a politician addresses a carefully selected group of seniors, "we hope older people will cross their arms and say: 'Think of me beyond pills and Social Security. I worry about my grandkids,' " Schroeder said.

And then a candidate might get some good advice from senior voters -- ask them to grade campaign promises on how well the policies will affect the country 30 years from now.


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