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Aging in the 21st Century PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, August 08 2015 08:56

I regard twenty-first century America as the best time and place to be old. Despite hazards, I have found life in my sixties, seventies, and eighties to be astonishingly rich. 

It has given me well-being that I much value, along with new circles of friends and colleagues. Interviews and other contacts with people at different stages of later life have made me marvel at the various ways of growing old. 

However, I realize that many people, both scholars of American mores and others who judge simply by their own experience, would take issue with me.

Some historians think American popular attitudes about aging changed significantly in the nineteenth century. They cite documents that show older people going from being honored, to being looked down upon and cast aside.

Other specialists and commentators hold that, in our own day, ageism (prejudice toward the aged) is epidemic in contemporary American society.

Ordinary people also testify to encounters with discrimination as they grow older. They complain about rejection by other members of society.

In the professional world, a number have told me about their problems in getting good jobs and holding them. In their non-working life they report being ignored at parties, with others talking past them.

I admit having detected enough of this ageism to have joined forces, in the 1980s, with the Gray Panthers as they protested unfavorable images of older people in television and in other advertising media. Their efforts also included the Panther campaigns to change national policies toward elder citizens.

This connection helped me become more sensitive to the slights that many older friends and colleagues have reported receiving.

However, as noted above, my own experience of reaching old age has been almost entirely favorable. I feel myself to have benefited from the age liberation movement of the second half of the twentieth century. This has included social change comparable to other movements such as the rights of women, minorities, gay and lesbian people, the physically disabled and others. 

Thanks to leaders like Maggie Kuhn, I learned to see old age not as a problem, but rather as the fulfillment of life, and as a time for new learning about oneself and about the world. 

And yet I resisted the impulse to see later life as simply positive; that would have meant erring in the other direction. To reject such false optimism, all I needed was to see friends afflicted with dementia.

 Jack, an age peer of unusually high intelligence, was my friend for sixty years. By stages he lost the ability to exercise his profession, to recognize family members and friends, and to live at home. Finally his life was claimed by the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Another classmate and life-long friend, Frank, saw his own life cut short as he consumed his strength in caring for his wife, an early-onset victim of the same devastating disease.

Adapting old-age boosterism would have made me ridiculous in my own eyes, as well as the estimation of wise friends. The technological sophistication of American society enables health professionals to keep us alive far beyond the time when life can offer any satisfaction. Indeed, technology now can keep us alive whether or not we wish to go on living.

Many thousands of elders now are sustained by machines while simply enduring their earthly existence. For some, old age can become a time of horror when they are tempted to despair.

Atul Gawande, in his wonderful book “Being Mortal,” strongly criticizes this mechanized approach to end-of-life care, and proposes supportive and humane alternatives.  I hope very much for his and similar ideas to prevail in our society.