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Children in an aging society

WHEN Marjorie and Leslie Karen were expecting their first child, they planned to move out of their home in an adults-only community before the baby was born. But construction on the couple's new house was delayed, and they were unable to leave until their daughter was two months old. ``The discrimination was phenomenal,'' says Mrs. Karen. ``They couldn't wait to get us out. They thought, `You let one baby in and there goes the neighborhood.' The treatment was really bad.''

Today the Karens and their two children, 20-month-old Dana and 6-month-old Bryan, are happily settled in Centura Parc, the nation's first community planned specifically for young families. Here, on a 130-acre site where dairy cows once grazed, 164 Mediterranean-style villas are clustered. Cotton-puff clouds float across a post-card-blue sky. Palm trees punctuate the flat terrain, and brilliant hibiscus blooms in tiny front yards. A newly completed clubhouse and pool promise recreation and sociability. And a ``Workout Trail'' winding along a man-made waterway offers residents a place to exercise.

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But the heart of Centura Parc -- the justification for it -- is a matching pair of state-of-the-art child-care centers. In these ``Centers in the Parc,'' 92 children, ranging in age from three months to five years, find a daytime home while their parents, residents of the development, work.

``Centura Parc is a sociological phenomenon,'' says Judith LaVorgna, executive director of the child-care program. ``Something is happening here that is not happening anywhere else. It's almost like `Little House on the Prairie.' We're harking back to 25 years ago, when family values -- community, home, school -- meant everything.''

Here in the Sunshine State, where retirement villages dot the semitropical landscape, the need to focus on young people looms larger than it does elsewhere. More than 18 percent of the state's 12 million residents are 65 or over, compared with 11.7 percent for the nation. The question Florida faces today, the rest of the country will have to answer in years to come: As the median age of the population rises and the birthrate declines, what does an aging society promise for its youngest members?

Every day 1,600 Americans turn 65. By the year 2020, older people will be 17 percent of the nation's population -- nearly the same proportion as exists in Florida today.

Thus, what Dr. LaVorgna calls the ``sociological phenomenon'' of Centura Parc serves as a microcosm of the future. It also illustrates two growing forms of isolation between generations.

Sandwiched between the very young and the very old, the parents of Centura Parc, and elsewhere, become the missing generation. The same eerie stillness that pervades many suburban neighborhoods during the day hangs over Centura Parc, and a visitor wonders: Where is everyone? Parking spaces are mostly empty, and the only noise comes from lawn mowers and construction crews working on the second phase of the development.

As the need for day care grows, this kind of separation will become even more common. ``We are relegating the upbringing of our children largely to strangers,'' says Wesley Jenkins, executive director of the Family Service Centers in Clearwater, Fla.

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Members of the middle generation are even more cut off from their parents than from their children. ``Everyone's family is back in Illinois, back in Massachusetts,'' Mrs. Karen says. ``Most people are just alone. Our generation's attitude is, `It's me -- and me, myself, alone.' ''

Commenting on day care, LaVorgna says, ``I worry that we'll be high-tech, no-touch.'' Where grandparents are concerned, the only touching, as AT&T has recognized, may be by long-distance phone, with the extended family promising to become even more extended.

Harold Richman, director of the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center for Children, sees two possible scenarios for the future.

In the first, he says, children ``may become a treasured resource, nurtured all the more for their scarcity and importance to the nation's future.'' Smaller families may mean that parents ``will care more about children and provide more for them.'' Furthermore, he notes, Americans may recognize the increasing need for healthy, motivated, educated young people. Their diminished numbers will make them even more necessary for defense, labor, and the economic support of at least part of the older population.

In the other scenario, he suggests, children ``may come to be regarded, amid the increasing clamor for resources and attention by other dependents, as only another needy minority.'' Their decreasing numbers could mean that their claims might ``become overshadowed by those of other dependent groups and their interests overlooked or ignored.'' And increases in the elderly population could require families to assist older members, thus transferring at least some resources away from children.

In 1960, children under age 18 made up nearly 36 percent of the population. Twenty years later, that figure had dropped to just over a quarter. By 2030 it may drop to just over one-fifth. Dr. Richman views these demographic shifts as a warning that public and private concern for children may decrease for the first time since the early 19th century.

Already there is growing evidence that commitment to children is waning in some areas. ``The evidence is all on the negative side,'' he says.

Edward Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale, agrees. ``The wish has been that we're going to find mechanisms to unite children and the elderly,'' he says. ``The reality is quite different. The block grants have put the aged and children on a collision course, competing for ever more scarce resources.

``The picture that finally comes out is a society that is spending less and less on domestic programs in which equally needy programs are competing. Two of those groups are the elderly -- at least the needy elderly -- and children. Until we get our priorities straight, I think the reality is that the aging will continue to compete with the young for scarce resources, and they'll win, because they are a much more potent force on the political scene. They vote, they organize.

``There are about three organizations for the elderly,'' he continues. ``When an issue comes up in Congress, they can make three phone calls and the next day get letters in the millions into Washington. The weakest lobby that I know anything about is the child and family lobby. We try, we work very hard, but there's no money.''

Others take exception to that either/or approach.

``It's very clever to phrase the argument that somehow the elderly are stealing from the children and children aren't getting their due,'' says Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families. ``That's not what's going on in society. There's only one element stealing from all of society, and that's the arms race.

``Nobody has found fraud or error in any welfare program, including food stamps, as great as the errors and the fraud we have found in defense procurement. There aren't many food-stamp recipients who get a chance to rip you off for a billion.

``I don't see a conflict between older people and children,'' he concludes. ``We have the potential to do for the children of the nation what we have done for the elderly, which is to lift them out of poverty and put them on some modicum level of security.''

In St. Petersburg, Fla., James Mills, executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board, sums up the practical approach. ``You can either say, `There's tight dollars, let's fight over them,' or, `Let's find ways to use them together.' ''

Beyond the need for policymakers to recognize that ``child carelessness'' and ``elderly carelessness,'' as LaVorgna puts it, are parts of the same tactical problem, there is the fundamental question of attitude. Too often both children and the elderly are regarded by the rest of the population as troublesome and less attractive members of the race.

Currently, the negative attitude toward the young gives itself away in a legislative process, according to Richman. He says that in the early '80s in Dade County, Fla., among some members of the county commission, ``the major interest in programming for children was based on the fear they perceived the elderly population had of kids. They put their resources into the juvenile court, into detention facilities. There was no sense that this was a resource that needed to be worked with and developed because it was in fact the next generation.''

Helen Gordon Davis, a Florida state representative from Tampa, agrees: ``It's so discouraging. The legislative process is getting more and more repressive in its attitudes'' toward any kind of juvenile delinquency.

On the other side of the barrier, the young can be equally insensitive to their seniors.

``The biggest problem has been the stereotyping of what we are like as we pass age 40,'' Mr. Jenkins says. ``Fortunately, those stereotypes are improving as the Madison Avenue marketing mentality that related to youth now is seeing an enormous market of people from 45 to 85.'' But, he notes, TV sitcoms of the past, like ``Hee-Haw,'' have ``cast the role of the elderly in the light of being old, senile, decrepit, not able to catch on.'' And the youth cult of rock music has done little to modify the impression that the older generation is ``out of it.''

As a corrective experience for both contingents, the Juvenile Welfare Board in Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater, is beginning to focus on intergenerational activities and what Jenkins calls ``substitute experience with older people, so kids who are separated from their biological grandparents can have contact with older people.''

One of these activities is a Foster Grandparents program. In another proposed program, mothers with young children needing a place to stay would be matched up with older people who have extra space.

Meanwhile, back at Coconut Creek, construction workers are putting the finishing touches on Centura Parc's second phase -- 210 single-family homes, plus a day-care center. When moving vans begin arriving in December, another cycle will start in the perpetual process of working out a place for children in an adult's world.

Even so, ``Centura Parc will be considered quaint by the year 2000,'' LaVorgna predicts. ``There will be new forms of child care in communities.''

Whatever forms they may take, this much is now clear: Any chances for success will finally depend on a sense of the wholeness of life, on a deepening perception that children and the elderly (and those in between) are not alien races at war with one another for their place in the Florida sun -- or anywhere else.

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