When Age Really Matters

by | July 11, 2011
filed under Can-Con, Feminism

Gerald Hodge is Jarrah’s Dad, and a former director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University. He lives on Hornby Island, BC. He has had two heart attacks, a quintuple bypass, and now lives with Pulmonary Fibrosis, a lung disease for which there is no known cause or cure. He thanks his wife Sharron for help “massaging” this article.

“Can you imagine old age? Of course you can’t.” Like Philip Roth’s character in The Dying Animal, I couldn’t. And at four score years I still do not know how it will all turn out; I only know that I will come to an end.

Oops! I almost used the “D” word, the one featured in the title of Susan Jacoby’s new book, Never Say Die. In it she unleashes a passionate attack on current myths about growing old that essentially say you can defy old age. These myths are propagated by, among others, Big Pharma and various marketers of longevity. Think of the TV commercials you’ve seen touting “anti-aging collagens” in makeup or enhanced sex lives courtesy of Viagra et al.

Moreover, Jacoby asks, if you’ve ever seen the old people portrayed with “thinning hair, flabby skin, jowls, skeletal-looking hands, liver spots, obvious osteoporosis…?”  And notice too that the word “old” is never used by these marketers, much less “old age”.

It is the irrationality of these claims she attacks. Claims such as: if one takes care of oneself  ̶  with these products of course   ̶  a long and healthy life is assured. The “miracles of modern medicine” are often cited to back up such claims, although many advances have been made, the marketers continue to mislead us that the medical reversal of aging is imminent. And this despite the fact that we are far from having cures for the serious diseases that commonly beset women and men in old age  ̶  think cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, or pulmonary dysfunction.

Central to her argument is that by propagating the myth of a young old age we obscure the real old age and ignore the needs of the millions who are already old and suffering through the disabling and restrictive phases of their lives.

An especially poignant and significant chapter deals with age-related dementia. These diseases, of which Alzheimer’s is the most common, leave their victims “defenseless and the slayer of all wisdom, all memory….” Dementia is a disease of old, and the older you get the more likely it will affect you. For those 85 and older, close to half are afflicted.

Unlike most diseases of old age dementia affects others more directly; caregivers in particular come to know that the only aid they can give is “essentially palliative” and that memories of their relationship with the victim can no longer be shared.  Many of those affected will be able to function with help, but they cannot be left alone and unsupervised for very long. The alternatives for them are few; the nursing home becomes their default option, their last home.

Moreover, nursing homes are inhabited “almost entirely [over 75%] by women.”  For, as Jacoby stresses several times, “old age is primarily a women’s issue.” They are the survivors in our culture; they outlive men by a substantial number of years. As a consequence, women are “two-and-a-half times more likely than men” to suffer the severe illnesses and disabilities of old age. If they are able to avoid the nursing home, women will tend to live out their days alone, without a long-term partner for support, and often in near-poverty.

Although her focus is on U.S. elders, my own work regarding Canadian seniors concurs in almost every respect. The one major difference is our universal health care system that neither discriminates by age nor forces families into bankruptcy to receive medical attention for their elderly kin. But before any more pats on the back, Canada still has far to go in establishing hospices for end-of-life care, in providing adequate local transportation options for the one-third of seniors who do not drive and cannot walk long distances to often-unsheltered bus stops, and in building affordable, alternative kinds of housing in towns large and small for seniors who have to leave their homes.

Most readers of this blog, I suspect, are not soon bound for retirement and the vicissitudes of old age, but a thought to the issues Jacoby discusses could pay dividends as you and those around you age. And, if ever considering retirement, you’ll not go wrong on her advice to seek “a place that forces you to stay on your feet and look for work wherever and whenever you can find it.”

-Gerald Hodge

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