OneMansView, March 09, 2011
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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.