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Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age


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ISBN13: 9780307377944
ISBN10: 0307377946
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Anyone who has not been buried in a vault for the past two decades is surely aware of the media blitz touting the “new old age” as a phenom­enon that enables people in their sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, and beyond to enjoy the kind of rich, full, healthy, adventurous, sexy, financially secure lives that their ancestors could never have imagined. Much of this propaganda is aimed at baby boomers now in their late forties, fifties, and early sixties, because marketers are betting that the boomer generation will spend almost anything on products that say “Hell no, we won’t go!” to a traditionally defined old age. I too have read (and occasionally written) optimistic screeds on the joys and advan­tages of the new old age, also known as “young old age,” also known as “successful aging.” But I now regard the relentlessly positive vision promulgated by cheerleaders for the extension of longevity as more of an exhortation, even an ultimatum, than an evidence-based portrait of old age as it is today and is likely to remain for the huge baby boom generation. As the oldest boomers turn sixty-five, it is past time for a more critical and skeptical look at old age as it really is in America today, especially for the “old old”—those in their ninth and tenth decades of life. When I told a forty-something colleague that I was writing a book about the myth of young old age, she asked how old I was (a question still considered impolite in most contexts). I told her I was sixty-three. “Surely you don’t think of that as old?” she asked in a horrifi ed tone. Actually, being an American who came of age in the “forever young” decade, I do not usually think of myself as old. But when I recall how quickly the last two decades, packed with love and work, have sped by, I know how close eighty, or ninety, really is—as distinct from whatever subjective notions I cherish about my own youthfulness. Old, in Amer­ica, always seems to be a decade or preferably two decades older than one’s own age. The difference between forty and sixty is that, at sixty, the imaginative leap to old old age is not only possible but inescapable.


The idea that there is a new kind of old age, experienced in a radi­cally different way from old age throughout history, is integral to the marketing of longevity. For who would want to live to be one hundred if, as individuals and as a society, we accepted or even suspected that the new old age, after a certain point, encompasses most of the vicissitudes of old-fashioned old age? There is a considerable amount of truth in the assertion that many old people today—if they are in sound fi nancial shape, if they are in reasonably good health, and if they possess func­tioning brains—can explore an array of possibilities that did not exist even a generation ago. “If ” is the most important word in the preced­ing sentence. The idea that we can control the future by aggressively focusing on and taking care of ourselves is an article of faith for baby boomers. Yet in many instances, successful aging—or the outward ap­pearance of successful aging—means only that a person has managed to put on a happy face for the rest of the world; present an image of vigor and physical well-being even when bones are aching; smile even though a heart may be breaking with loss; do everything possible to conceal memory lapses; demonstrate a consistent willingness to try anything new; and scoff (with just the right, light touch of humor) at those mis­guided contemporaries who refuse to “live in the present.”


Here’s what one cannot do and be considered a person who is aging successfully: complain about health problems to anyone younger; weep openly for a friend or lover who has been dead more than a month or two; admit to depression or loneliness; express nostalgia for the past (either personal or historical); or voice any fear of future dependency— whether because of poor physical health, poor finances, or the worst scourge of advanced old age, Alzheimer’s disease. American society also looks with suspicion on old people who demand to be left alone to deal with aging in their own way: one must look neither too needy for com­panionship nor too content with solitude to be considered a role model for healthy aging rather than a discontented geezer or crone. Successful aging awards are conferred only on those who have managed (often as much by biological good luck as effort) to avoid, or convince others that they have avoided, the arduous uphill fight that eventually consumes all who live too long to retain control over either the mundane or the important decisions of everyday life. It’s great to be old—as long as one does not manifest too many of the typical problems of advanced age. The reality evaded by propagandists for the new old age is that we all are capable of aging successfully—until we aren’t.


I hope that this book about the genuine battles of growing old will provide support for all who draw their strength and courage from real­ity, however daunting that reality may be, rather than from platitudes about “defying old age.” This commonly used phrase in the annals of the so-called new old age fills me with rage, because the proximity of old age to death is not only undefiable but undeniable. Anger, by the way, is another emotion considered inappropriate in the old; the dubi­ous notion of the “wisdom of old age” rests on the belief that elders can, and should, transcend the passions, vaulting ambition, and com­petitiveness of their younger adult lives and arrive at some sort of peace that passeth all understanding.


The capacity to negotiate between the past and the present, not tran­scendence of the emotions and desires that have made us who we are, is the proper definition of aging with dignity. The great Russian-born dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who once seemed to fl oat above stage and earth as the preeminent male classical ballet star of his generation, bravely called himself a “dancing fossil” on the Today show. Having just turned sixty, he described the role of the older dancer as that of “a me­diator between your memories and your [current] abilities as a human skeleton.” This unromantic description of successful aging is applicable not only to nature’s blessed exceptions, who figure so prominently in most prescriptions for age-defying behavior, but to anyone whose in­tense desire for meaningful experience remains undiminished by a real­istic recognition of time’s indelible, deepening imprint. The search for new, earthbound ways to express lifelong passions—not to transcend them in some mythical metamorphosis that seems more akin to a heav­enly ascension—demands the most arduous efforts from and offers the most rich rewards for every aging human skeleton. Anyone who has outlived his or her passions has lived too long. Wordsworth got it ex­actly right, at the tender age of thirty-seven, in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”: O joy! That in our embers / Is something that doth live, / That nature yet remembers / What was so fugitive! 

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OneMansView, March 9, 2011 (view all comments by OneMansView)
The myths of being forever young

There is a belief that has gained prominence in the US over the last couple of decades that growing old has been overcome, therefore unnecessary, even inexcusable, through healthy living, self-transformation, and the utilization of medicines and treatments. Sympathy for those persons who have noticeably aged is in short supply; they too could be part of the “newly young” had they adopted healthy lifestyles or had the financial responsibility to pay for life-enhancing products. No longer are there justifications for aiding “new fifty” seniors. This book is a thoroughgoing repudiation of such imaginings. Perpetual youthfulness has not suddenly come to be. The reality, that the author carefully and at great length shows, is that the vast majority of elderly people are beset by intractable health and financial difficulties. Distorting the realities of aging justifies the inadequate responses of the US social, economic, and political systems in addressing the needs, conditions, and policies surrounding the elderly. Of course, the myths of aging would have little currency without the marketing arms of pharmaceutical and other beneficiary companies relentlessly bombarding the public.

There is a grain truth to the impression that many elderly people lead enhanced lives. The author does not deny that a great number of people do lead very active, contented, healthy lives well into their eighties and beyond. Except for the few genetically lucky, the dark little secret is that class standing has much to do with that. Those of upper middle-class standing with professional or semi-professional occupations, that provide high salaries, independence, and non-strenuous work, have the extra income and/or retirement savings to receive the best of treatments and medicines, not to mention a demand for their services well beyond typical retirement age. That is not the reality for the vast majority of the elderly, which consists most typically of single females barely surviving on a monthly social security check.

One of the biggest myths that the author takes on is the one holding that we as a society venerate the old. That is a definite, even cynical, overstatement, including the nostalgic idea that families were the primary caregivers for the elderly. It is the rare individual who was or is cared for in a multi-generational household. The cold fact is that in America the old are invariably shunted aside to fend for themselves on what meager resources they may have. The lie that the wisdom of the elderly is valued is readily seen in the rampant age discrimination practiced in American places of employment. For a variety of reasons: obsolescence, slowing down, too high wages, increased medical costs, except for the most exceptional or highest level of jobs, older workers are shed for the younger. Of course, the same forces are at work when older workers apply for jobs. In no way does the author contend that mental capability does not deteriorate with old age, especially for those over eighty. In fact, the possible onset of dementia may be the biggest fear of the elderly. But that is not an argument for discriminating against those with many good working years remaining.

The harsh reality is that probably a majority of older retirees simple do not have the resources to meet all basic needs, let alone being able to fund an adventurous life style. And as the author suggests those numbers are going to increase. Those who worked in large corporations in the three post-WWII decades did well economically, many being covered by retirement plans. Since then, many more workers are having their earning years shortened, as well as retirement plans and benefits slashed. Given such relentless forces, it is doubly cynical to suggest that the impoverished elderly have only themselves to blame. Few people regardless of age can transcend powerful economic forces that prevail in a society.

America has not always been so callous towards the elderly. As the author points out, the first widespread payment of pensions was directed to Civil War veterans. The passage of Social Security in the New Deal was an acknowledgement that economic forces often left the elderly in dire circumstances. But social Darwinist thinking has returned with a vengeance. How convenient that those who have made it economically ��" in their eyes, the survival of the fittest - are now the poster examples of the newly, forever young. They deserve their new healthy status, jetting off to ski resorts, leaving the “undeserving” behind. That is the thinking with which those with a sense of community responsibility must contend: the elderly who are poor and/or in bad health equally “deserve” their situation.

As the author shows, those promoting this new fountain of youth have no qualms in presenting a fantastical picture of the “new-young.” Who hasn’t seen in various media the well-tanned, tight-skinned couple, obviously no more than fifty, with perfectly cut, silvered hair luxuriating in retirement? It could be on a first-rate golf course, or perhaps it is around home ready to respond “when the time is right” with the aid of pharmaceuticals. The fact is that such idylls have no relevance to what life is like for most over-eighty seniors. Where is the small, totally gray lady, her body bent with osteoporosis, who lives in a one-room apartment and is definitely not waiting “for the right moment” in the advertisements? Such exaggerations are not harmless. When real lives are hidden under an avalanche of distortion, how can needed support from younger people or the political system be obtained? In fact, according to the author, such marketing gives credence to the contention that the elderly are “rich old geezers.” If that were true, perhaps Social Security and Medicare should be cut back. The reality is that for most elderly people, those programs provide the only lifeline that they have.

The book is most definitely not a “how to” book on overcoming aging. It is a densely packed, slow reading thorough examination of convenient, opportunistic myths about aging. The book would perhaps have more appeal to a broader audience if it were halved; the author discusses far more than what this review suggests. Indirectly, the book could be helpful to those approaching or in old age. It is far easier to counter pressures, demands, and expectations when the misinformation and deliberate distortions on which they are based are brought out in the open. One of the more pernicious demands placed on the elderly is that should be happy, cheerful, and optimistic. Complaints of infirmities or being cantankerous violate the simplistic concept that old age is some sort of tranquil, golden period in life, a notion that simply does not comport with the realities of being old in America.

In the author’s sobering words,

For too many Americans, old age ��" especially advanced old age ��" means a sharp and unwanted transition from a sense of themselves as people valued by family and community to a diminished sense of themselves as burdens who serve no purpose. It is a shift from active to passive, from being a caretaker to being a care recipient, from independence to dependence, and it is experienced as a personal loss at the deepest level, regardless of outer circumstances. This unwanted transition can be delayed but not denied, unless one dies in vigorous young old age [before eighty], in full command of one’s life.
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Product Details

The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age
Jacoby, Susan
Death & Dying
Older people - United States -
Old age -- United States.
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
9.54 x 6.4 x 1.25 in 1.38 lb

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Related Subjects

Health and Self-Help » Health and Medicine » Aging
History and Social Science » American Studies » General
History and Social Science » Sociology » Aging
History and Social Science » Sociology » General

Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age Used Hardcover
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Product details 352 pages Pantheon - English 9780307377944 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "'I am about to present a portrait of advanced old age,' Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason) warns, 'that some will find too pessimistic and negative.' Her portrait of the emotional, physical, fiscal, and mental problems debunks popular myths about life in our 80s and 90s, 'the worst years of lives.' Jacoby locates American youth culture from colonial days, when, in 1790, 'only about 2 percent were over sixty-five.' By 2000, those over 65 were 12.4%, thanks to modern medicine and the benefits to well-being coincident to the economic prosperity of the 1950s and '60s. Jacoby cautions that marketing has deceived the public by suggesting that 'cures for mankind's most serious and frightening diseases are imminent and that medical reversal or significant retardation of aging itself may not be far behind.' As she attends to the 'genuine battles of growing old,' Jacoby is both moving and informative about Alzheimer's costs to the psyche and the purse of sufferer and caretaker, and eye-opening as she reframes impoverished old women as 'a women's issue.' She raises timely and 'uncomfortable questions about old age poverty, the likelihood of dementia, end-of-life care, living wills, and assisted suicide.' (Jan.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
"Review A Day" by , "In separate books, Ted C. Fishman and Susan Jacoby both cry crisis, but in different registers of alarm. Their common theme is the disruptive effects, on nations and individuals, of the coming worldwide increase in the ranks of the aged. Fishman tends toward dispassion; Jacoby, toward exasperation. He's a better guide to the scale of the changes; she's more adept at making them painful and personal. Both sound wake-up calls that go on till afternoon, long after they've made their points. But their troubling message needs to be heard. Take it in perhaps with a glass of aged scotch." (Read the entire Wilson Quarterly review)
"Review" by , "In Never Say Die, Susan Jacoby confronts the unhappiest of truths: many of us will live too long — both for our own good and for the good of others. This is the darkness that looms over us at the intersection of medical ethics, social justice, economics, and our midnight fears. Never Say Die is a beautifully written, clear-eyed, and deeply compassionate book."
"Review" by , "For those of us who are old, Susan Jacoby's candor about old age is bracing; for those not yet old, Never Say Die should provide an unsentimental education for the years to come."
"Review" by , "Susan Jacoby, a sworn enemy of irrationality of every form, has some shockingly bad news: We will all die, and most of us will get old first — not 'older' but actually old. In this beautifully crafted book, she punctures the promises that aging will eventually be 'cured' either by a wonder drug or though positive thinking. The good news is that if we wake up from our delusions we may be better able to grow old with dignity."
"Synopsis" by , Jacoby raises the fundamental question of whether living longer is a good thing unless it means living better. Her book speaks to Americans, whatever their age, who draw courage and hope from facing reality instead of embracing that oldest of delusions, the fountain of youth.
"Synopsis" by , From the author of the best-selling The Age of American Unreason: an impassioned, closely reasoned critique of the myth that a radically new old age — unmarred by physical and mental infirmity, financial problems, or loneliness& mdash; awaits the baby-boom generation.

In a narrative that combines the intensely personal with social, economic, and historical analysis, Susan Jacoby turns an unsparing eye on the marketers of longevity — pharmaceutical companies, lifestyle gurus, and scientific businessmen who suggest that there will soon be a “cure” for the “disease” of aging. She separates wishful hype from realistic hope in a wide-ranging appraisal of subjects that include the explosion of Al­zheimer’s cases, the impact of possible cuts in Social Security on the economic future of aging boomers, and the fact that women make up most of the “oldest old.” Finally, Jacoby raises the fundamental question of whether living longer is a desirable thing unless it means living better, and she considers the profound moral and ethical concerns raised by increasing longevity.

Never Say Die is a lucid, provocative, and powerful argument that Americans, no matter their age, are doing themselves no favor by buying into the myth that they can stay "forever young."

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