What is old age in the 21st century?
Are you and I part of the “aging of the aged?” These queries are more complex than they may seem.
When we add considerations of how folks address aging, the journey becomes more dramatic and significant.
I recently read Michael Kinsley’s book “Old Age,” which has the appropriate subtitle: “A Beginner’s Guide.”
Kinsley focuses mostly on his “Boomer Generation“(Americans born between 1946 and 1964).
The oldest Boomers are now merely 72 – that’s no age at all, compared to changing U.S. demographics. Still, Kinsley (just 67) has many powerful perspectives to offer on aging.
His discourse is replete with wit and humor (including his own experiences with Parkinson’s, diagnosed at age 43).
Part of his skill is an anticipatory examination of how his generation might address late life and end of life matters.
Among his striking perspectives is recognition that even severe illnesses may have positive dimensions because they give a person notice – and time – to consider life’s exit strategies.
Clearly, for Kinsley – and for all of us – there are personal, family and social benefits in having time to shape our last days; such opportunities are not available to people who die suddenly.
Folks who are inattentive to their limited time are also likely to fail to shape their legacies, as well as how they want to be treated.
This part of Kinsley’s discussion brought to my mind a famous comment by the renowned 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson (who is referenced in a different context in Kinsley’s book). Johnson wrote:
“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is going to be hanged in a fortnight,
It concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
As we proceed in old age, a key question is whether we will focus our minds on how to spend the time we have, on caring relationships, on medical decisions, and on transmitting legacies.
It may be the case that many elders, like Melville’s Bartleby would “prefer not to” – not to think about their end of time on earth.
Kinsley presents some of his perspectives in ways that can be startling: “Eventually you’re going to be dead. And you’re going to stay dead for many years longer than you were alive, and all that will be left of you is people’s memories of you, which is to say your reputation.”
Near the end of the book, Kinsley gives a daunting reminder: “You want to be remembered favorably, of course, but first you need to make sure you are remembered at all. Most people aren’t.”
My life has been shaped by many long departed people – teachers, relatives, and friends. How many of us can live our lives so others will relish referencing them for their own values?
I always appreciated Arthur Miller’s emphasis on the great significance of one’s good name. For the same reasons, I have always been impressed with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as a celebration of righteous gentiles and an honoring of good people.
The 21st century requires a new gauge for old age. Reaching 65 was the retirement reference point when FDR’s New Deal Social Security was adopted in 1935.
Indeed, Kinsley makes a good point emphasizing that in 2011 after the first Boomers turned 65, their cohorts have been doing so at the rate of 10,000 per day.
Those 79 million original “Boomers” (minus the deceased of their cohorts) will have profound effects on every aspect of American society.
However, those of us now in “official Old Age” already represent directions in our society that have never before been encountered.
Until 2000, Americans over age 85 were called “the oldest old.”
Now, they are merely “the old, old,” replaced by the fastest percentage growth in our population, folks over 100 – the new “oldest old.”
With the marvels of modern medicine, more Americans are living longer than ever, and often with a quality of life that today’s elders would not have expected from observing their own parents’ limited longevity, with fewer medical and social options.
For Kinsley – and all of us – approaching, or already into old age, the questions are: How do we proceed in ways that are meaningful and satisfying? To what extent do we make careful value choices as our years and days become numbered?
I will have more to say about those queries in a discussion of John Leonard’s “Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons from a year among the oldest old.”
But, for now, I’d like to cite the memoir manuscript I just read. It’s by my dear friend, Zenia DaSilva, a long-time member of Temple Emanuel in Great Neck.
Zenia titles her memoir “93 – and Counting.”
Be alert for its publication; it is an inspiring story of navigating life’s many passages.