A fresh-faced look at growing old

In Never Say Die, Susan Jacoby elbows aside old prejudices about ageing and the ‘illderly’ and asks instead how society can sensibly cope with having lots of older people.

Jennie Bristow

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‘But hoping for worse health and shorter lives hardly seems consistent with the American dream.’ With such pithy insights, Susan Jacoby – the fiercely rational intellectual whose previous books include The Age of American Unreason – exposes the banality of modern prejudices that have become attached to old age and the process of ageing.

One such prejudice is that ageing has been redefined as a state of mind, in which people are exhorted somehow to think themselves young. This means, argues Jacoby, that the real problems of disease and infirmity associated with real, ‘old old age’ are dismissed. As she argues: ‘In real old age, as opposed to fantasyland, most people who live beyond their mid-eighties can expect a period of extended frailty and disability before they die. Given the high proportion of illderly among the old old, the common boomer fantasy of dropping dead after a heart attack while making love at the age of ninety-five bears about as much relationship to the reality of old age as the earlier boomer fantasy of painless childbirth without drugs bore to the reality of labour as experienced by most women.’

Cheery stuff, huh? Fortunately the energy and sharpness of Jacoby’s writing makes this a rather less gloomy read than the endless rounds of policy discussions about the ‘burden’ imposed on pension systems and healthcare by an ageing population. There’s a lot to disagree with, and rather too much solipsism in Jacoby’s ready reflections on her own life and the circumstances of her loved ones. And there’s an element of fatalism to Jacoby’s view of ‘old old age’ itself. But in general, Never Say Die is a refreshing attempt to define the problems of ageing in social and cultural, rather than purely individual, terms and find fresh ways of engaging with those problems.

For example, the book’s concluding chapter, while acknowledging rather awkwardly that she is attempting to fulfil her friends’ demand to end the book on a ‘positive note’, nonetheless makes some convincing arguments. Jacoby recommends that old people stay in cities, close to amenities and other people, rather than moving to ‘retirement communities’ where they can easily become trapped in their apartments with no transport or reason to leave; and that they are able to keep working: ‘I confess that I cannot understand the appeal of unlimited “free time”, as one does not need to be a workaholic to question the advisability of too much leisure.’ Above all, she recommends staying angry: ‘Refusing to conform to the emotionally correct image of old age as a time of placid contemplation is an affirmation of self.’

Where Jacoby struggles – as she recognises – is in dealing satisfactorily with the issue of care for those for whom independent minds and bodies are already a thing of the past. Discussing her 89-year-old, infirm mother and her grandmother, who died just after her hundredth birthday, Jacoby – who, as a self-confessed ‘baby boomer’, is about 65 – writes: ‘Mom needs help, but I can no more give up my life now – or, to be honest, I am no more willing to give up my life – than I was 15 years ago. Nor was my mother willing to give up her life so that she could provide her own mother the kind of full-time care that Gran provided for my great-grandmother.’

And this, really, is the baby boomer paradox that Jacoby both reflects and reflects upon. The ‘myth of the new old age’, which peddles the sentiment that you can defy old age through a lifetime of neurotic health-obsession and ‘positive outlooks’, is itself a product of the two cultural turns associated with the generation born in the postwar boom: the culture of narcissism, whereby the focus of human activity becomes increasingly oriented around a therapeutic conception of the self; and the cult of youth, where anything new and young is seen as desirable and valuable, compared to the ‘outdated’ or ‘old-fashioned’ perspectives derived from age and experience.

As the baby boomers become older, it is little surprise that this famously self-obsessed generation turns its attention to the problems of ageing and finding individual strategies to carry on partying, often through limiting their lives in the here and now through a preoccupation with healthy-living strategies borne out of the desperate pursuit of longevity.

But is this all their own, selfish fault? It is often argued that the baby boomers’ rampant individualism means that they are the ones failing their elderly parents; yet this argument is contradicted by the fact that many of this generation do, in practice, have significant caring responsibilities for their elderly relatives, as well as for their young grandchildren.

The baby boomer nervousness seems to me less about what they are prepared to do for their dependants, than about what they are prepared to expect from their children when the time comes. So the individualism of the ‘new old age’ can be seen as much as a defence strategy as it can the self-centred pursuit of youth.

The fact is that there is no individual solution to getting older – and, as is now becoming very apparent, nor is there a ‘social’ solution to the problem of elder-care in the form of the welfare state. The question of how society looks after its old, like that of how we care for children, is a generational one, which can only be resolved through a debate about the responsibility of young and middle-aged adults to their dependants: essentially, their parents and their kids.

The problem, as Jacoby so starkly reflects, is that this generational issue is often understood in entirely privatised terms – ‘giving up my life’ to care for my ageing mother, for example. This ends up being the experience of many people – especially women – and has helped to fuel the search for a solution to care of the elderly that somehow lies ‘over there’, within the systems and institutions of the welfare state. And it has led to the presentation of the ‘ageing’ problem in the unrealistic and de-humanised way Jacoby helps to illuminate, where older people are either portrayed as bouncing around youthfully with no needs at all, or as a depressing drain on society’s resources.

Yet the reality is that care of the elderly does have to start with the family. This is not to argue that those who care for old old people and the ‘illderly’ should simply be left to do so entirely on their own. Jacoby’s argument about the advantages of cities over dedicated retirement communities hints at the fact that, in some areas of life, organic relations between generations still persist, offering opportunities for informal contact and care. At a more formal level, better medical care and more focused forms of care support could ameliorate some of the practical and financial difficulties experienced by individuals – often who are relatively elderly themselves – on a day-to-day basis.

Recognising a generational responsibility does, though, require a different orientation towards ‘giving up my life’: not martyrdom, but a greater confidence in what individuals can be expected to cope with, and their responsibilities towards one another. The fear of ‘becoming a burden’ that is so often articulated by older people implies that generational transfer is a one-way transaction; that people’s lives have value only when they are either youthful or obviously useful, and that the elderly are a social problem rather than a collection of individuals with different needs, personal resources and relationships.

If society had a general sense that care of the elderly was, like childcare or care for disabled people, part and parcel of everyday family life, there would be the basis to develop more collaboration within and between generations, and a more focused and flexible debate about where healthcare and other social resources can best be directed. It would certainly beat the futile, life-limiting quest to stay ‘forever young’.

Jennie Bristow is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.) She is also editor of Abortion Review, and an associate for the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent, where she is studying the problem of generations.

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