Predictably, my recent column "Pampering the Elderly" {op-ed, Oct. 24} drew a lot of angry mail. But one kind note came from Francis Simerman, age 74. She admits to liking most of my columns, though not this one. Then she adds: "May I make a suggestion? Your opinions could benefit from a wee bit of humor." It sounded like good advice, so I called her. On the phone, she's sharp and cheerful. "I do wish young people today knew the way of saving," she says. "They made it {their income} too fast."

Although this was said softly, it struck a familiar chord. Much of my mail reflected generational resentment. We survived the Depression and World War II, the letters say. We skimped to buy our first homes and saved for retirement. Don't blame us for your problems. There's something to this. The experiences of older Americans and baby boomers are polar opposites. Older Americans grew up in hard times and now think they're entitled to security. The baby boomers grew up in good times -- the 1950s and 1960s -- and are baffled that life hasn't treated them better.

But the full story is more complicated. "Actuarially, people get back what they put in {Social Security}," one reader explains to me. Although widely believed, this is a myth. Today's elderly are massively subsidized by today's workers. The average man turning 65 will live 15 years, the average woman 19 years. For a typical couple, their Social Security taxes (plus employers' taxes and an assumed accumulation of interest) cover eight years of Social Security benefits. Medicare spending enlarges the subsidy.

I would not alter this basic situation for a moment. Improving the well-being of older Americans has been a great social advance. But yesterday's successes often create today's problems. The first thing we need to do is acknowledge the problem. As my first column said, spending on the elderly now accounts for 47 percent of federal outlays, excluding defense and interest payments, up from 32 percent in 1965. The problem is that this spending may undermine our ability to meet other national needs -- including new needs of the elderly.

But when I say "pampering the elderly," I'm referring to more than spending. I'm talking about an uncritical attitude that bristles at any questioning of the status quo. The letter that most irked me came from Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. He accuses me of creating "misconception" through "manipulation." Higher spending for the elderly merely reflects more elderly (12.7 percent of the population, up from 9.5 percent in 1965) and soaring medical costs, he says. (Actually, it also reflects rapid rises in Social Security benefits, 75 percent faster than average wages.) Heinz misses the point. Our policies must be more thoughtful precisely because there are more elderly and because health costs are soaring.

It's fair to ask exactly what I have in mind. So here are some suggestions:

(1) Tax Social Security: Just why the leisure of well-to-do retirees should be subsidized by relieving them of a big part of their tax burden is something Heinz may be able to explain. I can't. Only up to half of Social Security payments are taxable above fairly high thresholds ($25,000 for individuals and $32,000 for couples). The tax loss is put at $21 billion for 1991. Of that, $19 billion benefits taxpayers with more than $30,000 of income (nearly $11 billion benefits taxpayers with more than $50,000).

(2) Reduce Early Retirement: Today, people live longer and retire earlier. In 1956, 2 percent of Social Security beneficiaries took payments before age 65. In 1988, that was 68 percent. One reason for this is that Social Security encourages people to retire early and then penalizes them for working. Benefits are reduced only slightly for early retirement (the cut is 20 percent at age 62), but anyone who works until age 70 has benefits cut after modest earnings. This makes no sense. As a society, we increasingly need the skills of older workers. And many of them want to mix work and retirement. The penalty for those who work should be ended, and benefits for new early retirees should be cut sharply over a period of, say, a decade.

(3) Reform Medicare: We should expect the middle-class elderly to pay more for their routine costs (through higher deductibles, greater premiums or other devices) and, in return, extend coverage for long-term care. The costs of long-term care frighten even the affluent elderly, who don't want to burden their children. But the costs for society are also huge. The Pepper Commission recently proposed a plan whose annual price tag is put at $43 billion.

(4) Put Social Security Back Into the Budget: The trust fund has been largely removed from our accounting of the deficit. Because the trust fund is running a surplus, the effect is to enlarge the officially reported deficit. This increases pressures to raise taxes on (mainly) the non-elderly or cut their programs. Meanwhile, the "surpluses" in the Social Security trust tempt Congress to expand benefits for the elderly.

It's an illusion to think that the costs of an aging population can be dramatically reduced. Indeed, they will probably rise with time. But they can be borne more equitably and effectively than now. We should break down artificial distinctions between the elderly and the non-elderly. People don't suddenly become helpless and hopeless once they hit 65. Francis Simerman isn't helpless or hopeless. Despite arthritis, she does part-time work for the blind.

Many older Americans are happy, economically comfortable, mentally sharp and physically active. Others are poor, lonely and sick. Some people are fine now but won't be later. Our policies should reflect this diversity. The trouble is that lobbies for the elderly -- and many of the elderly -- want it both ways. They want to reduce age discrimination that hurts (for example, job discrimination) and keep discrimination that helps (for example, tax relief).

What we most need is the ability to discuss openly the implications of an aging society. We can't foresee every new problem, and we will need to adapt as we go along. It's important that anyone who suggests policy changes not be automatically dismissed as a vindictive, lying senior-hater. But that's the tenor of much of my mail and of the political climate. I'd like to brush it aside with a bit of humor. Unfortunately, it's not a laughing matter.