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Wouldn't it be great if the intellectual giants of centuries past could be with us yet. Many of them achieved their best work in literature, art, philosophy, science or mathematics at advanced ages. Wouldn't the world be a better place if the accumulated wisdo111 of these talented people could still be around to set us straight? The poet, William Wordsworth thought so when he eulogized John Milton: "Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee: she is a fen /Of stagnant waters." With England traumatized by Napoleon, Wordsworth sought Milton's help. Surely, these greats of yesteryear could contribute to our own trauma of global terrorism.
It is asserted by some that the search for immortality is pornographic. Yet, it will be remembered of the twenty-first century that a conscious effort was made to confront and perhaps conquer death. Wasserman (helped conquer sexually transmitted diseases) Salk(the anti-polio vaccine." Pornographers? Nonsense? "Death be not proud," wrote the poet, John Donne. He was right.
While searching for immortality we are baffled by age. My first wife for forty-three years died of rampaging breast cancer, my second wife for six years died of virulent brain cancer. How does one make sense as to why we are attacked by Parkinson's and Alzheimers, by heart disease and cancer? Why the Holocaust? Why the terror of 9/11 ?Thus, the young may see things as they are and ask, "Why?" while the old may still dream of things that never were and ask, "Why not?"
The financier Bernard Baruch insisted, "Old age is always fifteen years older than I am." The popular French singer, Maurice Chevalier, responded to a query about how it felt to be old, "It isn't bad when you consider the alternative." When the aged former president, Thomas Jefferson, was asked if he would choose to live life over again he said yes, but only between the ages of twenty-five and sixty. Thereafter, he wrote, "The powers of life are sensibly on the wane, sight becomes dim, hearing dull, memory constantly enlarging its frightful blank and parting with all we have every limb, and so faculty after faculty quits us, and where then is life?"
In her book, The Coming of Age, Simone de Beauvoir reminds us, "There are no initiation rites" that herald the coming of age. "Nothing should be more expected than old age; nothing is more unforeseen." Except for the very young who look forward to growing older because of the privileges and opportunities for independence they believe age implies, most people, unconsciously think that while others may die, they are immortal.
In a study of 1700 people between the ages of twenty to eighty, some of the eighty year olds failed to perceive themselves as old. For the young, we have schools, organized sports, camps, opportunity for music, skiing, or ice skating lessons. We prepare the young systematically for adult roles, but the elderly have to make their own preparations for growing old. As a song in the musical Fiddler on the Roof suggests, "I don't remember growing older!"
Becoming old is nearly always a shock.
Life expectancy at birth increased by thirty years in the last century, and according to most demographers, significant increases may be expected to continue. Tables published by the National Center for Health Statistics, show that life expectancy at birth was 47.3 years in 1900, rose to 68.2 by 1950 and reached 77.3 in 2002. "Americans turning 65 in 2005 can expect to live on average until they are 83, four and a half years longer than the typical 65-year-old could expect in 1940. By 2040, the average 65-year-old will live to about 85. "When President Franklin Roosevelt signed Social Security legislation into law in 1935, the life expectancy of a sixty year old man was twelve and a half years. Today, the life expectancy is sixteen years. Today, an average American man who retired at the age of fifty-five will spend 32 percent of his life enjoying his retirement years.
Some demographers, however, such as S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois insist "that life expectancy has reached a ceiling, and that there is nothing on the horizon to indicate that life style changes, surgical procedures, vitamins, anti-oxidants, hormones, or techniques of genetic engineering have the capacity to repeat the gains in life expectancy that were achieved in the 20th century." Yet, in the matter of aging, it is better to bet with the optimists and to prepare for the further "graying of America."
The Baby Boomers
Nine months after the end of World War II, live births in the United States surged from 222,721 in January of 1946 to 233,452, by May of that year. That October, an astonishing 339,499 babies were born the United States. By the end of the 1940s, 32 million babies had been born compared with 24 million in the 1930s. Between 1945 and 1964, 76 million babies had been born in the United States. Thus, "the great postwar baby boom had begun in a torrent of diapers, dishes, and debts." Those infants born between 1946 and 1965 have been described as the "baby boomer" generation.
While it availed them little, the older generation deplored the spending habits and the sex habits of the boomers. The baby boomers in America moved to the suburbs where the automobile and television dominated. Women were expected to marry, but many began to work outside the home in careers of their own. Many boomers protested the Vietnam War, but men and many women went off to fight. The rate of divorce grew, as divorce was no longer looked upon as social stigma. By 2006, the baby boomers turned sixty and some became grandparents.
So, the graying of America continues. At the turn of this century, approximately 4 percent of the United States population was over sixty-five. Today, that percentage has climbed to 14 percent. More than 70 percent of people now live to the traditional retirement age of sixty-five; nearly three times as many did at the turn of the century.
Will the aging boomers seek only shuffleboard and a rocking chair in Florida? Will they be content simply to babysit their grandchildren? Or will they want more? But aging boomers, still feisty, and with a longer life span than they had anticipated when they were born, may demand more of themselves, of government, of their children. How to respond to their needs may be viewed as the most significant social challenge of the twenty-first century.
Two-thirds of the improvement in longevity has occurred during the last century. There are more senior citizens over sixty-five than there are teenagers. Most middle-aged Americans have more living grandparents than children. While it is evident that women live an average of seven years longer than men, why the discrepancy exists remains unexplained. There are also racial differences life expectancy with Caucasian women living six years longer than women of African American descent. Caucasian men live about eight years longer than African American men. While the entire population of the United States has tripled since the turn of the century, the absolute number of older persons, currently thirty-three million, has increased eleven fold.
Among the world's richest countries—Western Europe, Japan, the United States, and Canada—the problem of an aging population has attracted increasing attention from industry and government. The aging crisis of the developed countries can also be expected to overtake the less affluent nations as well and these developing areas of the globe have fewer resources with which to cope with the "graying of the Third World."
In his study of aging among less developed nations, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute contends that with the exception of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where even twenty years from now the median age will remain but twenty years, and in the Arab/Islamic world where total fertility rates continue to rise, "population aging is driven mainly by low birth rates rather than by long life spans."
In China, between 2005 and 2025, about two-thirds of the total population will occur in the sixty-five-plus ages, or about 200 million people. Most of the elderly will have to find a means of supporting themselves inasmuch as the weak pension system makes it difficult for the Chinese government to offer much assistance. Moreover, in a country in which it is policy to discourage large families, the Chinese aged will be unable to rely on government, and likewise, will be unable to rely on family for financial support and care.
In Russia, as total population falls, median age rises so that by 2025, 20 percent of the population will be sixty-five or older. Moreover, Russia has suffered substantial deterioration in its public health system; the result that life expectancy is lower today than forty years ago. The dilemma for Russia, according to Eberstadt, is where best to put its scarce resources. "Should Russian resources be channeled to capital accumulation, or to consumption for the unproductive elderly?"
In India, the demographics of an aging population are complex. In the north (Young India), the population by 2025 will remain relatively young. In the south (Old India), the population by 2025 will be aging unmistakably. How will India support this elderly population with income levels lower than that of Japan and Western Europe? Aggravating matters for India's demographics is that while the population of Old India is aging, its population is educated, while Young India's relatively youthful population requires schooling. Eberstadt puts India's demographic dilemma this way, "Educated and aging, or untutored and fertile, this looks to be the contradiction and the constraint for India's development in the decades immediately ahead."
The demographics of aging people in America may be examined in another way as follows:
* A 75-year-old man can expect to live eleven more years.
* A 75-year-old woman can expect to live thirteen more years.
* A 65-year-old man can expect to live seventeen more years.
* A 65-year-old woman can expect to live twenty more years.
* 30 percent of women between 80 and 102 still have sex.
* By age 35, people lose more bone density than they make.
* By age 40, the waistline measurement in inches, and the risk for heart attack dramatically increases.
* By age 45, disease becomes a bigger mortality threat than accidents.
* 63 percent of men between the ages of 80 to 102 still have sex.
* 65 validated centenarians have lived to 110 or beyond.
* 70 is the new 65, based on the health of 65-year-olds in 1973.
* 74 is the average life expectancy for a boy born in 2001.
* 80 is the average life expectancy for a girl born in 2001.
* 85-94 is the fastest growing age group in America.
* 120 is the estimated potential life span of humans, if nothing goes wrong.
* 122 is the oldest, fully authenticated age to which any human has lived.
Because aging populations are a universal phenomenon, academic specialties have developed to study the problems and the prospects of the aged. The process of aging is called senescence, which is not at all the same as senility. The former term is normal, senility, which may be defined as a loss of self-control and abnormal behavior, is an illness. Many elderly never become senile, while some men and women become senile relatively early on in their lives.
Gerontology is the study of the social and cultural implications of an aging society while geriatrics, a medical specialty, deals with the health issues of growing older. To this, one may add thanatology, or the study of death. Because biological age and chronological age rarely coincide, a ten-year, ten million dollar study by the MacArthur Foundation, begun in 1984, was undertaken to determine those factors that "conspire to put one octogenarian on cross-country skis and another in a wheelchair.
No one in my situation can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have been a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. —February 11, 1861. Farewell address as President-elect Abraham Lincoln left Springfield for Washington, DC. He was fifty-five years old.
From the dawn of civilization, men and women have preferred youth to age. Even moderns can feel for the aging Egyptian scribe who recognized with anguish that he was growing older:
"Old sovereign my lord! Oldness has come; old age has descended. Feebleness has arrived; dotage is here anew. The heart sleeps wearily every day. The eyes are weak, the ears are deaf, the strength is disappearing because of weariness of heart, and the mouth is silent and cannot speak. The heart is forgetful and cannot recall yesterday. The bone suffers old age. God is become evil. All taste is gone. What old age does to men is evil in every respect."
Little wonder that in Egyptian hieroglyphics a bent figure leaning on a stick is the ideogram for an old person who first appeared in an inscription about 2700 BC in Babylonia."
Old Age Among the Ancients
Old age has been regarded as a period of decrepitude, as an infirmity, a boring preparation for death, and so to be denied or at least postponed for as long as possible. In the first century, one person in a million reached the ripe old age of sixty. For a person to reach the extraordinary age of seventy or eighty was widely believed the result of divine intervention. Even in antiquity, some people lived more than a hundred years. Among the ancient Egyptians, "a long life is a divine reward granted to the just."
"The specter of early death, sudden death, and short life still hung heavily over Renaissance society, reinforced by periodic plagues and epidemics and by frequent deaths of young friends and family members."
In 1517, while negotiating with the Medici, forty-two year old Michelangelo complained that his was an old man. Michelangelo died at the age of eighty-eight. The humanist, Erasmus, at the age of forty, wrote a poem, "On the Discomforts of Old Age." Erasmus died at seventy. Dante Alighieri, who wrote the Divine Comedy while in his mid-thirties, died at age fifty-six.
While life was often short, there have always been old people, most of who were not treated well by the societies in which they lived. In some societies the Greek historian, Herodotus, reminds us the aged were worshiped as gods, and in other societies, the aged were eaten or buried alive. Some societies fed their elderly to vicious dogs, others shouted with glee as they threw their elderly from high cliff s to be crushed upon the rocks below. Early Romans disposed of their elderly by drowning them in the Tiber.
With elaborate ceremony, Samoans buried their elderly alive often with the collaboration of the victim. The Siriono nomads of the Bolivian forest unceremoniously left their elderly behind as they relentlessly sought new sources for food. The Hopi, Creek, and Crow Indians constructed special huts away from the village where they left their elderly to die. The Eskimos left them in snow banks, on ice floes, or forced them to paddle away in a kayak never to return. The Fijians, on the other hand, believed a person lived eternally in death at the age at which he or she died. To assure themselves of healthy bodies for the next life, some would voluntarily kill themselves before they became decrepit. What these practices demonstrate is not that the ancients were crueler to their elderly than their modern counterparts were, but that then as today, there is an ambiguity about what to do with the aged.
When an ancient society depended upon oral traditions to pass on the tribal heritage, the elderly enjoyed a respected position. When written communication became common, the usefulness of the old was in doubt. With few resources to support the senile, the elderly, with memory gone, and no longer needed to instruct the young in the traditions of the group, were killed off .
Abuse of the Elderly
In parallel manner, when the aged among us cannot quite cope with the computer, the Internet, cell phones, the iPod, the BlackBerry, or Web sites, the young appear amused at first and contemptuous before long. Impatient to receive their inheritance, the young yearn to follow the Romans and throw Grandpa or Grandma off a cliff. But, not quite able to bring that off , the young send the old to a nursing home, now euphemistically called a complete care facility. "Modernization has thus far tended to devalue old people and to reduce their status."
Abuse of the elderly, although ever-present, has likewise become something of a recent discovery, as did domestic abuse and child abuse a century ago.
* An 86-year-old suffers a broken elbow after an assault by her son.
* A 73-year-old collects cans to pay for food after her daughter robbed her.
* An 85-year-old, disillusioned by her children's ongoing verbal abuse, flees home bound for nowhere in particular.
Terry Fulmer, dean of the New York University College of Nursing, defines elder mistreatment "as the psychological, physical, or financial abuse, neglect, or exploitation of an older person by someone responsible for their [sic] care." However, mandatory reporting of mistreatment of the elderly is getting ever-wider recognition and support.
Today forty-six states have elder mistreatment reporting laws, which require health care workers to report on those elderly who appear physically abused (bruises, fractures, etc.), or poorly nourished (malnutrition), or mentally put upon (depressed). Dr. Louis Sullivan, who served as surgeon general between 1989 and 1993, declared, "elder abuse is a health care problem not just a law-and-order issue." For many the golden years have turned to dross.
Excerpted from Intimations of Immortality by Gerald Leinwand Copyright © 2010 by Gerald Leinwand. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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