Along with my contemporaries, I am a proud member of "the sandwich generation." Not only has our demographic accepted added responsibility for our children and grandchildren, to some extent because of the economic downturn, but we have also found ourselves caring for longer-living yet frail parents.
As we find ourselves in the middle, it becomes increasingly obvious that both our country's economic future and its sense of humanity are largely dependent on how we address the needs of those at the beginning and end of life.
As for our youngest, research by many experts has demonstrated the importance of brain development in their first 18 months -- proving that investment in early childhood health and education, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, pays extremely high future dividends. These include improvements in cognitive abilities and also in crucial behavioral traits like sociability, motivation and self-esteem, leading to greater success in college, higher income and lower incarceration rates.
At the other end of the spectrum, it was reported recently that this year, for the first time, the number of Americans reaching 65 has equaled the number entering the work force. Ten years ago there were 10 of us starting work for each person reaching retirement age and 10 years from now it is projected that this will be reversed -- only one will begin a career for every 10 signing up for Medicare. Are we as a society prepared for these very different, but competing needs?
Not surprisingly, as a new grandparent, I have a deep personal interest in the growth and development of young children. So, understandably, I'm delighted that Gov. Tomblin has taken the initiative of creating the Early Childhood Planning Task Force. It's clearly recognized that we must have a coordinated systematic approach with the most obvious foundations being Head Start and the 3- and 4-year-old pre-K programs. Although these get most of the attention, it is my contention that what happens before 3 may be even more important and I'm fearful that those children who reach age 3 significantly behind their peers just may not be able to catch up.
To address this concern, there are many things to consider and some begin long before the child is born. For starters, it's critical that during pregnancy, each and every mother-to-be has superb prenatal care and that, if possible, her newborn is delivered close to the due date. Next, the immense short- and long-term health benefits of breastfeeding for young babies are well known -- but in West Virginia, our rates are among the lowest in the country. This must change.
Then, there must be access to quality well-baby and preventive care, proper stimulation of the receptive minds of infants and toddlers, the availability of excellent childcare, and home visits to assist at-risk mothers learn the best child-rearing techniques for the early years.
Recommendations by the Governor's Early Childhood Task Force are greatly anticipated, but it is unfortunate that a similar "Eldercare Task Force" was not also authorized. Not that what happens in midlife is unimportant, but the impending tsunami of Baby Boomers reaching golden age is real and potentially catastrophic for our social networks.
More than 20 years ago, our own Sen. Rockefeller, as chairman of the Pepper Commission, first brought this concern to the public consciousness. In 2013, as we see that the present resources available for long-term care of seniors are already severely stretched and that neither private insurance nor Medicare adequately cover the costs of home health or nursing home care, keeping the elderly independent as long as possible should be our defining goal.
This is particularly challenging with the explosion of Alzheimer's and other dementias. In short, it's important that, among other strategies, we find ways to improve the overall physical and mental health of senior citizens, do a better job of listening to their wishes, create a system to provide a wide array of home services, and maximize reimbursement and support for caregivers.
The message should be that, although life's logic tells us that generally the expansive "middle" should be our focus, there are indeed times when the diminutive "extremes" are where the opportunities exist and this is surely one of them. Just ask those of us who came of age when Elvis was The King.
Foster is a Charleston physician and former state senator.