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Age is not just a number

Author takes on the myth of modern aging

Created date

February 22nd, 2011

A few pages into her new book, Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age (Pantheon Books), author Susan Jacoby offers readers a warning, I am about to present a portrait of advanced old age that some will find too pessimistic and negative. What follows is a tirade against a culture which denies or ignores the challenges of aging. She goes even further by taking on such sacred cows as the wisdom of old age, happiness, and the popular notion that a lifestyle which includes a sensible diet, exercise and whatever scientifically proven elixir is currently popular will allow us to do what previous generations could not defy age. Jacoby, whose work includes the New York Times bestseller The Age of American Unreason and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, rants against those who see aging through rose-colored glasses by refusing to address the financial problems, debilitating illness, and social isolation facing many older people, especially women, minorities, and the poor. Jacoby, 65, writes from the perspective of someone who fully understands the challenges of aging. She saw her beloved through Alzheimer s and is currently helping her 90-year-old mother navigate through life. As Jacoby readily admits, much of what she presents in the book will be seen as far too negative for most readers to stomach, which is a shame because the issues she raises are ones that Americans will need to address as more and more baby boomers officially qualify for senior discounts at their local Cineplex.

Age through the ages

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is titled Youth Culture and American Tradition which traces America s disregard for its elders all the way back to Revolutionary times. Some townships actually auctioned off impoverished old residents to farm owners in need of workers. And for those who think age-related government benefits is a 20th century invention, Jacoby points to founding father Thomas Paine, who first proposed a modest pension for every citizen over 55 in his book Agrarian Justice (1795). While many of Paine s views were woven into the fabric of America, his early notion of social security was not. In 1790, the first U.S. census showed that people over the age of 65 accounted for only 2% of the population. Today, this age group accounts for 13% of the population and by the year 2030, the U.S. Census bureau predicts that number with rise to 20%. The sheer strength of this demographic will have a profound impact on our society. Already, the older generation has become a vocal and powerful force in American politics as is evidenced by the recent battles over health care legislation and attempts to make changes in Medicare and Social Security. Asked if she believes baby boomers will be strong enough to change the way we treat our oldest citizens, Jacoby says, I think a lot of it depends on whether the boomers are smart about the fact that this is an intergenerational issue, and we can t just expect to say it s on your look out to people who are 30 years old and they will just quietly agree to rising Medicare and Social Security tax.

A better 90

Much of Jacoby s ire is directed at a society that spends untold billions on science to advance our life expectancy, yet spends nothing to make those years more livable. In her conclusion she urges Americans to push for long-term care options, caregiver support, and better housing options for people over 65. Americans ought not to think about making 90 the new 50 but a better 90 than can be expected today, she says. I will be accused of presenting the darkest possible picture, says Jacoby. I don t think it s dark at all. I think that what we ve been doing is ignoring the dark side of the picture. It s time for a realistic look at the problems as well as the possibilities of a population, which 20 years from now is going to be much older than it is today. Realism about the worst-case scenarios is a pre-condition for talking about what we can do reasonably instead of all of these slogans that age is just a number. Age is not just a number. Age represents a reality in which things begin to get harder the older you get.