Never Quite “Old”

Recently the New York Times ran a piece which once again addresses the question of what constitutes being “old” in America.  The writer, who is 61, says that the question of “what is ‘old,’ anyway?” is very much on his mind and is on the minds of the 70 million Baby Boomers who are older than 50.  He adds, by way of illustration:  “Dinner conversations are now hyper-focused on how to stay young or at least delay old.”

active-seniors-bicyclingThose sound like pretty damned boring dinner conversations!

It seems like we see these articles with regularity, as we Baby Boomers fight desperately to avoid association with “old age.”  The article linked above, for example, quotes a researcher who says that somebody who is 60 years old today is “middle-aged” and true “old age” doesn’t occur until men hit 70 to 71 and women hit 73 or 74.  Wanna bet that those numbers move back even farther as the bulge of the Boomer generation moves closer to the dreaded “old age” cutoff, to the point where, in a few years, people are saying 80 is the new 50?

It’s pretty ridiculous — and kind of pathetic — when you think about it.  Some people in the Baby Boom generation have always seemed more focused on how they are perceived than how they feel about themselves.  Now that they are aging, and they don’t want to be seen as “old,” they struggle to convince everyone that a different definition should apply. But the efforts aren’t working, and people still use the same criteria to define who is “old” — things like whether you’ve got gray hair, or for that matter any hair, and whether you’re approaching retirement at your workplace.  If you have enough of those criteria, you’re going to be seen as “old,” whether or not some researcher argues that advances in longevity really should change the definition.

If all Baby Boomers were really as rebellious as they like to think they are, they wouldn’t care about public perception.  If you’re seen as old by others, so what?  The key is what people think about themselves, not the labels assigned to them by others.  Baby Boomers would be better off if they stopped talking about “being old” at dinner conversations, and started focusing more on what they personally still want to do with their lives.

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A Limit To Aging

It’s no secret that average life expectancy for men and women has been steadily increasing for years.  With advances in medicine, science, disease control, and other factors that affect mortality, it’s now commonplace for people to live well into their 80s and 90s, and more people than ever are hitting triple digits.

100-candlesBut if you read the occasional stories about the acknowledged oldest person in the world, you note that the maximums don’t seem to be advancing.  You see the report on the oldest person being presented with a birthday cake with more than 110 candles, and a few months later you read that that person has gone to the great beyond and a new “oldest person in the world” has taken on that designation.

This leads scientists to wonder whether there’s a natural limit to life expectancy in humans.  One recent study, which explored a mass of human mortality information, has concluded that the human life span is naturally limited to a maximum of about 115 years, and that it would be exceptionally rare for any human to hit 125.  The study noted that only one human, a French woman named Jeanne Calment who died in 1997 at the age of 122, has even come close.

Some scientists pooh-pooh this conclusion, noting that the current crop of super-old codgers may have had their life expectancies affected by malnutrition or childhood diseases that have since been eradicated, and that up-and-coming generations of people who have not been exposed to such life-affecting circumstances may easily break through the 115 or even the 125 barrier.  Others argue that extreme old age logically should have genetic limits, as the lives of different species of animals seemingly do.  And, of course, it’s possible that new advances in medicine — such as finding a cure for cancer or the development of readily available artificial organs — could have an impact.

For now, though, I guess we’ll just have to settle for going toes up in the prime of life at the age of 115.  That’s bitterly disappointing for those of us who want desperately to see the year 2100, but at least having a presumed end date of 115 will add some welcome structure to our retirement planning.

The Crossing

Sometime in the very near future, the world will witness something that has never before happened in the history of homo sapiens:  the number of people 65 and older will be larger than the number of children under the age of 5.

Demographic experts call it “the crossing.”  It’s the point at which the upward moving line on the age chart representing people 65 and up crosses the declining line representing children under the age of 5.  The result is like a big X on a graph, because once the crossing occurs, those two trend lines are forecast to continue until, by 2050, the number of senior citizens will be more than double the number of young children.

census_bureau-chart-65_and_older-under_5-1Why is this happening?  The old age part is the easiest to explain:  advances in medicine and treatment of disease are allowing people to live much, much longer than they ever have before.  We’re routinely setting records on life expectancy and the number of people who have lived past 90 and even 100.

The other line on the graph, though, isn’t so readily explained.  In some countries, people are just having fewer children, or no children at all.  This isn’t a worldwide phenomenon, but one that has focused on certain “first-world” countries.  Japan, the European countries, and Canada are all among the oldest countries in the world.  In Japan, 26.6 percent of the population already is over age 65.

It’s not hard to foresee the serious challenges posed by these long-term trends.  Without young people in the demographic pipeline to grow up, get jobs, and contribute their tax dollars, it’s hard to see how the social welfare model can be sustained.  The health care and retirement payment costs of a growing number of elderly ultimately will overwhelm the tax contributions of a shrinking number of workers.  And eventually, old people do die — which means that the “old” countries will soon become much less populated countries.  What will it mean to Japanese culture and the Japanese social model and, for that matter, Japanese influence on the world stage when that country’s population is but a fraction of its current size?

One other thing about demographic trends — they’re not readily reversed.  We’ve been moving toward “the crossing” for decades, and soon it will be here.  Get used to seeing a lot of gray hair in the world, folks.

 

My Periodic Glimpse Of The Aging End Game

With Mom in an assisted living facility, my visits to see her have exposed me to the impact of old age in ways I’ve never seen before.  It’s been an eye-opener.

Typically my interaction with the residents happens in two scenarios — coming and going, and in the dining room.  When you enter the facility, you pass outdoor benches and rockers.  If the weather permits, there are usually some residents outside.  Most of them are smokers.  It was a bit jarring the first time I saw 85-year-old women dragging away on cigarettes, but the smokers probably figure what the hell — why not, at this point? Curiously, the smokers seem to be among the residents in the best overall shape.

IMG_1147Many of the other residents are congregated in the large common room near the entrance.  Some of them are in wheelchairs, and most of the rest use walkers.  Some are sleeping — usually deeply, often with heads back and mouths wide open — and others are just sitting.  Although there usually are many people in the room, there typically isn’t much conversation.  Even when I walk in on an event, like a bingo game run by a chipper assistant or an accordion performance, many of the residents are disengaged.

Some residents still get dressed up and take care with their appearance, and others have just let it go.  You’ll see women in make-up and jewelry and coordinated outfits and others who just wear loose shifts.  Some of the people clearly are with it, and others aren’t.  Recently, when Mom was still down in the dining room when I arrived, I sat at her table with a cheerful woman who, upon being introduced, immediately told me that she had no short term memory.  Within a minute, she repeated herself several times.  She clearly was aware of her condition, but there was nothing she could do about it.

Mom’s assisted living facility is a nice place, as such facilities go.  It’s kept very clean, the meals are well-prepared, and the staff members are friendly and attentive and work hard at what has to be a very tough job.  Most of the residents seem to have accepted their situations and are . . . waiting, and trying to make the best of things.  They can’t take care of themselves, their spouses are gone, and they really don’t have any good alternatives.

Even though I’ve been visiting the place for more than a year, I’m still sorting through my reactions to the very complicated issues raised by the end-game scenario.

When You Realize You Are Completely Out Of It

One of my mentees and his wife have welcomed a new addition to their growing family.  The baby’s name will be Maxwell.

I wanted to make a mild joke about the newborn with my other mentees, so I asked them whether they thought it would be appropriate to get little Maxwell a silver hammer.  In response, I was greeted with absolutely blank stares.  “I don’t think a hammer would be an appropriate gift for an infant,” one of my mentees politely responded.  “Is there some kind of tradition involved in giving a hammer to a child?” another asked.

“You know, the Beatles song,” I prompted.  Additional baffled looks.  “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer?”  I added.  More uncomfortable silence.

Occasionally, an incident occurs that crystallizes the fact that you are getting incredibly old, and the common cultural touchstones that used to be assumed in every conversation are common touchstones no more.  My references to Beatles song have no more resonance with my 20- and 30-something mentees than the latest Jay-Z song (assuming Jay-Z is still a popular artist — which I of course am blissfully unaware of) would have with me.

Dying With Dementia

Several recent studies about dementia among America’s aged are profoundly disturbing — especially for those of us who aspire to live to a ripe old age.

IMG_1111One study, by the Alzheimer’s Association, concludes that one in three elderly dies with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia.  The dementia does not necessarily directly cause death,  but does contribute to an earlier demise because the senior forgets to take her medication, or is unable to recognize symptoms that should lead to prompt treatment.  Another study, led by an economist from the RAND Corporation, concludes that 15 percent of Americans over age 71 — about 3.8 million people — have dementia, and that number will increased to 9.1 million by 2040.  The study also found that the direct health care costs for dementia patients, at nursing homes and other care facilities, is $109 billion, and the costs of care also are expected to increase dramatically.

As a society, we must worry about how we are going to pay for such care, but as individuals we worry about becoming one of those statistics.  If you’ve been around someone with dementia, you realize it is an awful way to go.  So many of the afflicted appear to be perpetually frightened, or angry, or both.  They don’t recognize family members, or understand when people are trying to help them.  The disease works terrible, fundamental changes to their personalities and characters, turning the quick-minded former executive into a simpleton or the happy, encouraging aunt into a bitter font of hateful, deeply wounding comments.

So much of life’s joy and richness comes from our interaction with spouses, children, and loved ones; what must it be like to be stripped of those pleasures, left to cope with strangers with only a dim understanding of who you are and why you are there?  It’s a depressing, terrifying prospect.

The Hobbit

The Hobbit is an entertaining movie.

I say this not as a Lord Of The Rings trilogy nerd. I couldn’t get into the movies, just as I couldn’t get into the books when I was in college and every sci fi and fantasy fan was raving about them. Even after watching The Hobbit — and watching it, and watching it, and watching it some more, because it is overlong as every Peter Jackson film seems to be — I’m still not sure I fully grasp the distinctions between dwarves, elves, trolls, hobbits, and orcs. And there may even be gnomes in there too, for all I can remember. It helps, I think, not to get too caught up in the unending back story, and all of the weird details of Middle Earth. The important thing is that it’s a good adventure yarn.

Stripped of creature distinctions and deep metaphysical analysis, the movie is about a quest, and an unlikely hero. The quest involves helping dwarves who have been displaced from their home by an evil, gold-loving dragon, and the unlikely hero is a hobbit Everyman who would rather be in his comfortable burrow with his books and his pantry than camping out and fighting evil orcs, but who rises to the occasion when he needs to. There is a journey, which helps because it gives everyone a chance to see some stunning on location scenery. And, because it’s apparently a law that you cannot make a self-contained Middle Earth movie, this is only part one, with part two yet to come.

This movie is’t perfect by any means. It’s too long, and requires the viewer to have a cast-iron keister and a bladder the size of Lake Superior.  Couldn’t the scenes of the forest wizard with bird droppings on the side of his face, or the fighting rock beings, have hit the cutting room floor? I could have done without most of the shots of evil wolf beings bounding across the screen, too. Although this movie didn’t scrimp on computer-based special effects — the scenes with Gollum are as good as any special effects you’re likely to see this year — computer-generated animals always look fake to me. The fight scenes, too, were overdone. At some point, whether the hardy band of warriors slaughters a hundred orcs and trolls or a thousand, what difference does it make? The important thing is that they emerge without a scratch.

All of those issues, though, don’t detract from the enjoyment of the movie. It’s a top-notch tale, capably told, with likeable characters to boot. If you like adventure movies, with a bit of magic and fantasy mixed in, The Hobbit is worth your while.