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Growing up about getting old

I hope I d-die before I get old.

My Generation, the 1965 song by the Who that became an anthem of baby boomers in their youth, has a different meaning these days.

The oldest boomers turn 65 this year, the youngest 47. They're not in any hurry to shuffle off the mortal coil, but they still don't want to get old. In fact, many of them are downright refusing to do so, believing that healthful living, positive attitudes and medical advances can let them live the same way in their 60s, and beyond, as they did in their 30s.

That generational state of denial is the subject of journalist and author Susan Jacoby's acerbic and relentlessly sensible new book, Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age. All that happy talk about 60 being the new 30? Not so much, Jacoby says. And 85 is most definitely not the new 45.

But boomers (I'm one), long in the habit of dominating the cultural conversation, are working hard to remake old age in their own image, just as they remade youth. Although they wouldn't want to admit it, youth culture is, Jacoby writes, nothing new in American society. The founding fathers were mostly under 40 when they did that founding, and the social Darwinist captains of industry who dominated capitalism in the 19th century cheerfully believed in giving older workers the ax as soon as their productivity slipped. (And nobody got Social Security or a pension back then.) Our rosy nostalgic notion of a past dominated by multi-generational households where a welcomed grandma lovingly dispensed wisdom to the young'uns is mostly a myth, given the restless mobility of Americans going back to colonial times. Far fewer people reached old age before the 20th century, and those who did had a seriously tough time of it.

Jacoby writes that what is new — besides greater longevity — is the widespread belief that the physical and mental ills of old age can be averted for large numbers of people. Exercise and diet, cosmetic and joint replacement surgeries, miraculous medical advances to tame scourges like Alzheimer's disease and cancer — many boomers believe it will all come together to keep them young, to the tune of spending $6 billion annually just on anti-aging potions and supplements.

We've all seen those stories about what Jacoby calls "sexy skydiving centenarians," and she makes clear that aging can be a positive experience — for some people. There's no question that such choices as proper diet and exercise can make an individual's life better — though no guarantee they will make it longer.

But, she writes, "The media's focus on healthy, well-off 60-somethings as models of what aging can and should be for everyone has fostered a selective form of ageism" that not only distorts reality but puts the onus of "aging well" on people who may not be able to do so.

Jacoby has a personal stake in looking at the real nature of aging in America. She is 65 and comes from a line of long-lived women: Her mother is a frail but mentally sharp 89, and her maternal grandmother lived to be 99. Jacoby also helped care for her "beloved man" as he died of Alzheimer's, which gave her an all too intimate experience of its shattering effects, often lasting a decade or more.

Jacoby makes a distinction throughout the book between the "young old" — those in their 60s and 70s who have a reasonable chance of maintaining quality of life — and the "old old" over 80, when rates for debilitating conditions soar (half of all Americans over 85 have Alzheimer's) and living independently becomes less and less likely.

In lively, carefully researched chapters, Jacoby analyzes a range of issues related to aging: medical, emotional, sexual, financial, political and ethical. She skewers quacks and exploiters of every stripe, like the "anti-aging" scientists researching ways to increase longevity who tout the possibility of extending the average lifespan to 120 years. (Just think, that would mean baby boomers would be making news until at least 2084.) Jacoby's question: Would you really want to live that long?

If this was all about boomer vanity, Never Say Die would be a lightweight book. But Jacoby delves into these issues for far weightier reasons: Denial about the realities of aging has an all too real impact on personal planning and public policy.

She stacks up the numbers about Americans who don't have the financial resources to retire, who have never discussed end-of-life medical preferences with family or doctors, who — especially if they are women — are likely to spend the last decades of their lives alone. And she writes with both passion and reason about government policy on scientific research, medical care, Social Security and more.

The fantasy of being forever young is one the boomers, and their children and grandchildren, can't afford, Jacoby argues. They are still the pig in the demographic python; in 20 years, 70 million Americans will be over 65. It's estimated that by 2050, 1 million new cases of Alzheimer's will be diagnosed each year. Botox and broccoli won't fix that.

In the book's conclusion, Jacoby admits that other writers urged her to end on a positive note, to offer readers lots of tips for a better old age. She does come up with a couple of nuggets of advice, albeit contrarian ones: Forget about retiring to the Sun Belt, where as soon as you can no longer drive your independence is over; instead, choose a walkable city with good public transportation, like New York. And keep working, whether for pay or as a volunteer, as long as you can.

But just as she refuses to buy into the idea that old age can be denied, she refuses to buy into the "emotionally correct image of old age as a time of placid contemplation." She vows, "I intend to be an angry old woman, a discontented work in progress, as long as my mind continues to function."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Excerpt from Never Say Die

Joint replacement surgery, for example, used to be performed mainly on those over 65 and on people whose joints were so painful that they interfered with everyday activities. During the past decade, the percentage of hip and knee replacements performed on men and women from 45 to 64 increased rapidly, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons — an increase due largely to the determination of athletic baby boomers to continue to engage in the challenging, high-impact sports that they have played since their teens. One such patient, profiled in the New York Times, is 52-year-old Jay MacDonald, an investment banker who has already had one knee replacement, arthroscopic surgery for torn cartilage on both knees, and rotator cuff surgery on his right shoulder. He had to beg his surgeon, Dr. Stephen J. O'Brien, at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery, to perform the rotator cuff surgery even though O'Brien thought the chances of success were extremely low. "You have to," MacDonald told his surgeon. "I want my life back. I want to surf — I've been surfing since I was 8. I do big waves, 16-footers. I can't stop just because of a rotator cuff." Not only does this investment banker want to enjoy sports and live his life pain-free, he wants to be able to do what he did when he was a kid. O'Brien repeatedly counsels middle-aged patients with replaced knees and shoulders to moderate their exercise — to run 20 miles a week instead of 40, or take easier skiing trails — but he repeatedly runs up against the expectations of patients who believe that aging means never having to give up anything. Many of these repeat orthopedic surgery candidates sound like cosmetic surgery addicts: they never consider what their refusal to make any compromises with aging might mean over a long period. Harry Packman, a 50-year-old lawyer and another patient of O'Brien's, has had 16 surgeries on his knees and shoulders since his mid-20s and plays in three softball leagues. "He's spent a lot of time in physical therapy," the Times reported. "That's where he met his third wife, who was working as an athletic trainer at a rehab center while he was rebuilding a back muscle torn playing touch football." Perhaps the first two wives got tired of having a husband who spent most of his time playing baseball and football, having one surgery after another to repair the injuries to his aging body, and spending time in rehab so that he could return to the field and injure himself again.

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

By Susan Jacoby

Pantheon, 332 pages, $27.95

Meet the author

Susan Jacoby will discuss and sign her book at 7 p.m. Thursday at Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa.

Growing up about getting old 02/05/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 7, 2011 1:06pm]
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