Susan Jacoby likes to explode myths and tell it like it is, but Never Say Die – the Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age may be more reality than readers want; it is easier to believe that sixty is the new forty, and that the term “senior citizen” is just a state of mind that can be forestalled with good eating, exercise, vitamins – with a little help from plastic surgery and good genes. Jacoby reminds us that no matter how good you look on the outside, the insides are getting old.
Act your age? Someone sent me a list of cheery quotes about old age – one from George Burns who made it to 100: “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” Jacoby devotes a chapter to age-defying denial, but affirms that “one’s real age is one’s real age,” no matter how much Botox. “Making adjustments” just makes good sense, and cites Reggie Jackson – when his age caught up with his swing, he got a lighter bat – and went on to hit beyond the 500 mark.
Jacoby continues with her reality checks. Did you think modern medicine will save you from old age? In her chapter on the half-truths of modern medicine, she acknowledges that increased longevity is within scientific possibilities, but may be due to genes and luck more than eating vegetables; nevertheless, without the fountain of youth, how long do you really want to live? She addresses dementia and Alzheimer’s in a separate chapter – no good news here either. Women, not surprisingly, fare better than men in the race to live longer, but “are more likely than men to suffer disabilities in old age,” and she offers a depressing description of the “loneliness of the long distance woman” that you might want to skip. And if you live too long, you may run out of money, no matter how much you have saved.
As to getter wiser as you get older? Jacoby summarizes one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s more obscure stories, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” testing the theory that rejuvenated bodies (from a magic elixir), while retaining minds with years of experience, “would not repeat the mistakes of youth.” Hawthorne didn’t think so, as his characters were actually worse with a second chance. People do change, get better, learn from mistakes – but not always – and it has nothing to do with physical characteristics; the magic may be motivation.
You may have heard about those skinny mice who live longer? Calorie restriction has its own advocacy group (CR International Society) for humans, and soon a pill will be discovered with the promise of increased longevity. Jacoby wonders if ten more years of life, without addressing concerns she raises throughout the book, and the very real spectre of dementia at the end, is doing anyone any favors.
After a short venting of all she believes is wrong with health care, social services, affordable housing, and long-term care, Jacoby ends the book trying to offer some consolation with suggestions for improving the inevitable old age: walk whenever and wherever you can; live in a neighborhood where you can walk – New York City is her place of choice – where delivery service for everything from food to newspapers is available. But, she acknowledges…
“Maintaining a sense of dignity and a sense of purpose in the final stages of life is, however, much more complicated than simply picking the right place to live and hoping for good health…”
Jacoby delivers the bad news with anecdotal evidence and scientific references, and rationally and effectively dispels the myths of a “new old age.” She is self-described as angry at the marketers, and revels in her pessimism. But, her last line talks of her aging grandmother, taking a long, last look at the river. My mother told me before she died, “No matter how long you stay, nobody wants to leave the party.”
A companion piece on this topic – Lastingness, The Art of Old Age by Nicholas Delbanco – offers insight into not only why some creative artists continue to work successfully in old age but also asks why why we revere some and not others. Delbanco does not answer the question, and the book has an academic bent. But you might enjoy wandering down memory lane with him to revisit the old and great: Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Yeats – and the book does have pictures. NPR provides a brief excerpt here