—by Catherine Bailey
Despite rosy prognostications by the media about a “new old age” for the baby boomer generation, the stark reality is that for most of us, what comes at the end of a ripe old age will taste more bitter than sweet. Susan Jacoby, author of Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, opened her frank discussion on aging by taking the measure of her audience at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles.
How many people, she asked, would like to live to be 100 years old?
Looking around at the hands raised, she qualified the affirmative responses: “I suspect what you mean,” she said, “is that you would like to live to be 100 if you could live to be 100 having a sound mind and reasonably good health.”
Not once to mince words, Jacoby pronounced, “There are a lot of time bombs in this room.”
What is the “new old age”?
Jacoby decided to write her treatise on the state of aging in America after attending a forum titled “Ninety is the New Fifty” at the World Science Festival in New York. It was a packed house, she recalled, and the audience seemed to lap up the absurdity of this premise without question.
The forum catered to a growing belief in what Jacoby has dubbed “the new old age.” In 2011, the oldest of the baby boomer generation will turn 65. In anticipation of this milestone, the media has jumped on board with health gurus and sellers of snake oil to promote a sanitized vision of aging.
“I would like to point out that I am using the word ‘old’ deliberately,” Jacoby said, “because it is considered an obscenity by the mass media. I’ve had it edited out of articles I cannot tell you how many times.”
In addition to redacting such outmoded terms as “old,” this movement to define a “new old age” relies on positive spin. Mourning a loved one for more than two months, complaining about one’s aches and pains, admitting to depression or fear of dependency–all these things are depicted as bad habits that contribute to unhealthy aging.
“Successful aging awards,” she said, “are conferred only on those who have managed, mostly as much by biological good luck as effort, to avoid or to convince others that they’ve avoided the arduous uphill fight that everyone eventually makes.”
Changing Perceptions of Age
Perceptions of what life can and should be for old people changed dramatically over the second half of the twentieth century. Previously, elderly men and women were expected to slow down. “If the image of parents having sex was unnerving,” Jacoby said, “the image of grandparents having sex was nearly unimaginable.”
Gray Power changed all of that. In the 1960s, the elderly participated in Civil Rights marches and were instrumental in securing the passage of Medicare. Today, we hardly blink at another erectile dysfunction commercial featuring men and women in their 60s and 70s.
Jacoby says she is often asked to account for the discrepancies between her book and recent psychological studies that suggest people feel happier as they grow old. She points out that the studies limit their sampling age. “They don’t even ask people over the age of 85 whether they’re happy or not.”
In fact, the studies show a spike in happiness for those in their 60s and early 70s, but this positive trend fizzles out by the age of 80.
Medical statistics do not paint a cheerful portrait of life thereafter: half of those who make it to the age of 85 will face the ravaging effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. What’s more, the latest scientific studies show that there’s not much you can do to improve your odds. No amount of vitamin popping, moderate eating, or exercise provides a magic talisman against the onslaught of old age.
Hope and Reality
What, you might ask, is so wrong with approaching old age with hope and optimism?
Jacoby has nothing against hope, so long as it is informed and grounded. “I hope,” she said, “that if I live into my 80s and 90s I’ll be like Betty White or Justice John Paul Stevens, who’s writing brilliant legal essays now that he’s retired from the Supreme Court.”
However, she emphasizes that hoping falsely and blindly will lead to a number of ills for individuals and for the nation as a whole. To those who hold that it is no more harmful for adults to believe in agelessness than it is for children to believe in Santa Claus, she counters that “adults are not children,” and to treat them as such avoids uncomfortable issues that can and must be dragged into the light.
Jacoby bemoaned the failure to include end-of-life treatment options in the Health Care Bill. “This idea that it’s ‘death panels’ to talk to your doctor or your husband or your wife or your child about whether you want to be hooked up in an intensive care unit for the last five or six weeks of your life is utter nonsense.”
Ultimately, she said, the cost of silence will drain families as well as government coffers, and if realistic discussions do not play out at home and in the Capitol, the children and grandchildren of the baby boomers will shoulder the burden.
Where to go from here?
In twenty years, approximately 20% of the United States population will be over the age of 65. Jacoby argues that individuals should prepare themselves financially and emotionally for the battle ahead. She also urges more discussion of living wills.
“Ninety percent of Americans say they want to die at home, but only 20% do,” she said. The expense of end-of-life treatment is often astronomical, even when it does not enhance a patient’s quality of life.
When asked how we might, as a society, address the negative feelings that are pervasive in long-term care facilities, Jacoby suggested more inter-generational contact, such as story-telling programs with local schools.
“Somebody ought to be asking old people, like my mother and grandmother, how to make things better. They don’t, you know. They seldom ask the old themselves.”
*Photos by Aaron Salcido.