Monday, August 8, 2011

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

First of all, I want to make it clear that it is sheer coincidence that I am criticizing another atheist today; this makes two-in-a-row, and I realize that looks bad. As I have said many times, I love the atheists for keeping us honest and forcing us (okay: me) to cut the perpetual starry-eyed routine. However, I have just read a very good book by an atheist, but I'm afraid her atheism has compromised the book, so I have to say so.

Susan Jacoby's fascinating NEVER SAY DIE: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, is one of those books I have been waiting for, and didn't quite realize it until I found myself hungrily turning pages and consuming it all in one afternoon. Interestingly, I finished it right after my doctor-visit and a lecture (not the first) about my cholesterol.

Do I see the numbers? Yes.

My weight and glucose are way down... but that damn LDL number creeps up and up. "If diet and exercise are not enough..." echo those damn TV ads from evillll BigPharma. Yes, they mean ME, now.

My 35-40 lb weight loss over the past 18 months, coupled with my devoted Swamp Rabbit Trail hiking, was supposed to magically make my cholesterol number go down and... (stares uncomprehendingly at the printed lab results that announce my HDL/LDL) well, it didn't work. I am pleased I am no longer a diabetes risk, but... well, shit, it's always something.

And that is a very good description of aging, "it's always something"... in this hard-nosed book that debunks and deconstructs the various Hallmark-greeting-card myths of aging, Jacoby plows right in. As one of those dedicated atheist-rationalists that takes no prisoners, she decimates several of the major aging myths, and not a few of the minor ones. For example, if you are an asshole in your youth, there is no reason to think you will age gracefully into a nice person with appropriate old-age "wisdom" -- and vice versa. As evidence, she offers (on one hand) Henry Kissinger, who is ancient but still defending genocide with aplomb. On the other hand, she offers Jimmy Carter, who continues to contribute to and enrich our world in so many ways. Certainly, these are excellent examples, and she has no argument from me. My grandmother always said old age simply made you "more of what you are"--and Jacoby seems to agree.

Jacoby is careful to use the terms "young old" (which would be me) and "old old"--which are people in their 80s-90s. She believes the "young old" are used for propaganda purposes, so that (basically young and middle-aged) people can point to them/us with relieved sighs and reassure themselves they can "stay active" while growing old and spry. By contrast, nobody puts the "old old" in TV commercials and nobody seems very glad to see them. They are carefully segregated from the rest of us. She writes at length about the problem of loneliness in old people, as their friends and loved ones die off all around them.

One thing I found disturbing in Jacoby's book, is the casual way she accepts this. She does NOT accept other states-of-affairs as unchanging (in fact, she tells us she intends to go out as an "angry old lady"), without thorough questioning--so why is this particular fact just offered as a given? Perhaps because she simply states that she would not change her life for her aging mother, just as her mother had not changed her lifestyle for her aging mother. However, she does note that her grandmother DID take care of her great-grandmother. Somewhere along the way, "we" (there's that famous punchline: "Whatcha mean We?") stopped doing that. We did? (Did someone mention economic class?) Actually, lots of people didn't. The professional classes, the educated class to which Jacoby belongs, people who have book contracts and write regular columns for the Washington Post, did that first. People with important careers found that they could not (would not) be bothered with aging relatives. That was a deliberate choice that Jacoby made, but it is in no way a given.

"Old old" people are more segregated than ever, and that is because advanced capitalism demands total mobility from everyone, so we end up moving all over the world to get and keep jobs. Of course old people are warehoused, who else is going to look after them? (A possible good side effect of the economy tanking, might be that fewer people are forced to move around so much, and old people might actually be able to stay in real homes.)

One of Jacoby's chapters is alarmingly titled, Women: Eventually the Only Sex. Women overwhemingly overpopulate the "old old" ... social and political concerns about aging are basically about the future of women and how we will live in our final decades; as we all know, the guys check out earlier. Jacoby echoes my own feelings in how modern feminism, profoundly uncomfortable with aging, does not see the economic debates over Social Security and Medicaid to be directly concerned with women, even though WE are primarily who these programs are about... young feminists are preoccupied with sex, reproduction and other youthful pursuits, and it is unlikely we will get them to understand that this is THEIR future too. And that reminds me of another thing I disliked in the book, Jacoby's request that we lay off older men who prefer younger women, using some half-baked pseudo-Darwinian excuse about how men are visual and require more and more to turn them on as they age. Excuse me, but so? It takes me more and more too. If I can refrain (as most women do) from pinching boys on the ass and/or asking them to get married, I think most older men can show some restraint as well. The fact that they don't is because men don't need to exercise restraint... RESTRAINT is not masculine, after all. I am not sure why feminist Jacoby found it necessary to cut men slack in this one area in which they decidedly DON'T NEED ANY, but ... (yeesh)

From Jacoby's website, a summary of the book:

The author offers powerful evidence that America has always been a “youth culture” and that the plight of the neglected old dates from the early years of the republic. Today, it is urgent to distinguish between marketing hype and realistic hope about what lies ahead for more than 70 million Americans who will be over 65 in just twenty years. This wide-ranging reappraisal examines the explosion of Alzheimer’s cases, the uncertain economic future of aging boomers in a shaky economy, the predicament of women who make up an overwhelming majority of the oldest—and poorest—old; and the absence of control over dying in a society that devotes a huge proportion of its health care resources to medical intervention in the last year of life—even when there is no hope that the person will ever recover.
One amazing fact she offers is that even among Catholics, a majority support assisted suicide.

Since I am giving this book a (mostly) good review, where do I think Jacoby got it wrong? Exactly where an atheist would get it wrong: In not covering the role of religion in the lives of very old people. ESPECIALLY when she discusses depression and loneliness and other negative emotional states. Does religion help with these? (they do in young people) She totally avoids the question. I realize the answer may well be "no"--but I would like to see an honest airing of the question, preferably accompanied by some stats (which I realize would be difficult to obtain; like a nice meal, religion is a subjective experience, pleasant for some and pure hell for others)... but I am intelligent and self-aware enough to know that *I* will become a religious fanatic of some sort in my old age. I am trying to work it out so that I will not be an annoying type of religious fanatic, but a benign presence or (at best) one that people might take some comfort from. But I know already, that religion is my opiate, and at the end of my life, I will be administering opiates (all kinds) in spades.

What does atheism offer? I think yall might consider "atheist congregations" of one kind or another, for the social needs of atheists. Sweet Mormon, Baptist and Catholic ladies will come to visit you when you are old... In fact, I visited the late Monsignor Baum myself, about a week before his death (he gave me a blessing in Latin, he seemed to have forgotten the words in English, which I actually found charming) --even though I barely had time to wipe my butt in those days. But I made visiting him a religious priority.

Question: Do the atheists have ladies with angel-food cakes standing ready to visit the old atheists? (If not, yall really need to get to work on that.)

And if the atheists say, fuck angel-food cakes, we don't need people to visit us when we're old, well, maybe that is the major difference between them and the rest of us. They expect us all to be as hard-assed as they are, and we just can't do it.

Does religion make old age better or worse? And I don't simply refer to the religious practices of the old person in question, I also refer to religion as a social force; do not underestimate the importance of hundreds of Sunday School classes going to visit the old people and sing them songs.

I know I'll just love seeing them, when it's my turn.


D. said...

Oh, yes.

Mom's in her late 80s (don't tell her I told you!) and is mobility impaired, and one of the things that can set me to tears is remembering what a bear for exercise she used to be and how we would walk for miles in Manhattan. That was only about 25 years ago, too.

I'm just beginning to get cozy with medical professionals and am still trying to stave stuff off.

Try eating more fish for "good" cholesterol.

DaisyDeadhead said...

I refuse to eat fish, but I did reluctantly try the fish oil capsules. Blegh.

Doctor is agitating for a statin. I am really down on that idea, but she is wearing me down!

D. said...

Damn, I forgot; you're vegan.

Certain nuts are also supposed to be high in Omega-3s (Omega-6s are apparently bad stuff in large amounts), preferably raw. I have not researched that in years, though.

Before you resort to statins, try grapefruit juice, grapefruit being off the menu if you're taking statins (and I am not a big fan of grapefruit, but I did like a glass of the freshly-squeezed once in a while...)

thene said...

I guess the problem is partly that middle-class women are working more and middle-class men are refusing to take up the care responsibilities that their wives and sisters have dropped, and god forbid anyone call those men on it.

Rootietoot said...

*Cheers!* Brah- VO!
I have also wondered what athiests DO when there's a health crisis. Who brings them a casserole when they've had surgery? I am sure there's a social network in there somewhere, it's just difficult for a die-hard church-goer to conprehend.