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

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

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by Susan Jacoby

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Susan Jacoby, an unsparing chronicler of unreason in American culture, now offers an impassioned, tough-minded critique of the myth that a radically new old age—unmarred by physical or mental deterioration, financial problems, or intimate loneliness—awaits the huge baby boom generation. Combining historical, social, and economic analysis with personal

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Susan Jacoby, an unsparing chronicler of unreason in American culture, now offers an impassioned, tough-minded critique of the myth that a radically new old age—unmarred by physical or mental deterioration, financial problems, or intimate loneliness—awaits the huge baby boom generation. Combining historical, social, and economic analysis with personal experiences of love and loss, Jacoby turns a caustic eye not only on the modern fiction that old age can be “defied” but also on the sentimental image of a past in which Americans supposedly revered their elders. 
Never Say Die unmasks the fallacies promoted by twenty-first-century hucksters of longevity—including health gurus claiming that boomers can stay “forever young” if they only live right, self-promoting biomedical businessmen predicting that ninety may soon become the new fifty and that a “cure” for the “disease” of aging is just around the corner, and wishful thinkers asserting that older means wiser.
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, as the oldest boomers turn sixty-five, it is imperative for them to distinguish between marketing hype and realistic hope about what lies ahead for the more than 70 million Americans who will be beyond the traditional retirement age by 2030. This wide-ranging reappraisal examines the explosion of Alzheimer’s cases, the uncertain economic future of aging boomers, the predicament of women who make up an overwhelming majority of the oldest—and poorest—old, and the illusion that we can control the way we age and die.
Jacoby raises the fundamental question of whether living longer is a good thing unless it means living better. Her book speaks to Americans, whatever their age, who draw courage and hope from facing reality instead of embracing that oldest of delusions, the fountain of youth.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Judith Viorst
If old age isn't for sissies, then neither is Susan Jacoby's tough-minded, painful-to-read and important book, Never Say Die, which demolishes popular myths that we can "cure" the "disease" of aging and knocks the "g" right out of the golden years…Jacoby support[s] her arguments eloquently and persuasively with historical, sociological, scientific and economic research.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
"I am about to present a portrait of advanced old age," Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason) warns, "that some will find too pessimistic and negative." Her portrait of the emotional, physical, fiscal, and mental problems debunks popular myths about life in our 80s and 90s, "the worst years of lives." Jacoby locates American youth culture from colonial days, when, in 1790, "only about 2 percent were over sixty-five." By 2000, those over 65 were 12.4%, thanks to modern medicine and the benefits to well-being coincident to the economic prosperity of the 1950s and '60s. Jacoby cautions that marketing has deceived the public by suggesting that "cures for mankind's most serious and frightening diseases are imminent and that medical reversal or significant retardation of aging itself may not be far behind." As she attends to the "genuine battles of growing old," Jacoby is both moving and informative about Alzheimer's costs to the psyche and the purse of sufferer and caretaker, and eye-opening as she reframes impoverished old women as "a women's issue." She raises timely and "uncomfortable questions about old age poverty, the likelihood of dementia, end-of-life care, living wills, and assisted suicide." (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"Drawing on research, personal experience, and anecdotes, [Jacoby] offers an important reality check for Americans enamored of the images of healthy, active seniors featured in advertisements." —Booklist Starred Review
Library Journal
It has been said that old age is not for sissies. Independent scholar/best-selling author Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason) concurs, providing ample reasons why we should, too. Taking a social, economic, and historical view of longevity, she tackles issues including medical care, housing, death and dying, Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, and the myth of the "greedy geezers," i.e., the elderly who are perceived to place demands on government and social services to the detriment of the next generation. This is not a cheerful book, but it is an important one, read with distinction and authority by Laurel Merlington; recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/10.—Ed.]—Nann Blaine Hilyard, Zion-Benton P.L., IL
Kirkus Reviews

A polemic meant to crush the notion that medical technology will soon make old age easier.

In her mid 60s, former Washington Post reporter Jacoby (Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, 2009, etc.) is in the midst of what she calls "young old age." The author also contemplates the physical and mental declines of her mother, who is trying to find some joy in "old old age." Jacoby demonstrates that with so many individuals in their 80s and 90s suffering from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, even a miracle medical discovery alleviating the impact will leave society unable to cope effectively with the flood of disabled patients. Providing a compelling, convincing account of current reality, Jacoby simultaneously demolishes the overly optimisticscenarios of the baby boomer generation. Too many boomers subscribe tounrealistic stereotypes aboutindividuals in their 90s climbing mountains. It is harmful wishful thinking to believe that those rare exceptions will soon become the dominant paradigm. The author also attacks the conventional thinking regarding the so-called wisdom of old age. Yes, many of the elderly have gained wisdom during the long lives. Often, however, they cannot communicate the wisdom well because of their overwhelming physical and mental ailments. Jacoby understands that writing such a pessimistic book might dim hope in the minds of both the young old and old old. Still, she maintains, being realistic about the miseries of old age will encourage wise government and private-sector planning for this decade, not for some future utopian decade that might never arrive. Because women outlive men by seven years and counting, the author wisely skews much of the narrative toward the plight of females. Many of the examples are from Jacoby's relatives, friends and acquaintances, giving the narrative a personal touch meant to humanize a frequently dehumanizing topic.

A cogently argued and well-written corrective to "the fantasy of beating old age."

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Anyone who has not been buried in a vault for the past two decades is surely aware of the media blitz touting the “new old age” as a phenom­enon that enables people in their sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, and beyond to enjoy the kind of rich, full, healthy, adventurous, sexy, financially secure lives that their ancestors could never have imagined. Much of this propaganda is aimed at baby boomers now in their late forties, fifties, and early sixties, because marketers are betting that the boomer generation will spend almost anything on products that say “Hell no, we won’t go!” to a traditionally defined old age. I too have read (and occasionally written) optimistic screeds on the joys and advan­tages of the new old age, also known as “young old age,” also known as “successful aging.” But I now regard the relentlessly positive vision promulgated by cheerleaders for the extension of longevity as more of an exhortation, even an ultimatum, than an evidence-based portrait of old age as it is today and is likely to remain for the huge baby boom generation. As the oldest boomers turn sixty-five, it is past time for a more critical and skeptical look at old age as it really is in America today, especially for the “old old”—those in their ninth and tenth decades of life. When I told a forty-something colleague that I was writing a book about the myth of young old age, she asked how old I was (a question still considered impolite in most contexts). I told her I was sixty-three. “Surely you don’t think of that as old?” she asked in a horrifi ed tone. Actually, being an American who came of age in the “forever young” decade, I do not usually think of myself as old. But when I recall how quickly the last two decades, packed with love and work, have sped by, I know how close eighty, or ninety, really is—as distinct from whatever subjective notions I cherish about my own youthfulness. Old, in Amer­ica, always seems to be a decade or preferably two decades older than one’s own age. The difference between forty and sixty is that, at sixty, the imaginative leap to old old age is not only possible but inescapable.
The idea that there is a new kind of old age, experienced in a radi­cally different way from old age throughout history, is integral to the marketing of longevity. For who would want to live to be one hundred if, as individuals and as a society, we accepted or even suspected that the new old age, after a certain point, encompasses most of the vicissitudes of old-fashioned old age? There is a considerable amount of truth in the assertion that many old people today—if they are in sound fi nancial shape, if they are in reasonably good health, and if they possess func­tioning brains—can explore an array of possibilities that did not exist even a generation ago. “If ” is the most important word in the preced­ing sentence. The idea that we can control the future by aggressively focusing on and taking care of ourselves is an article of faith for baby boomers. Yet in many instances, successful aging—or the outward ap­pearance of successful aging—means only that a person has managed to put on a happy face for the rest of the world; present an image of vigor and physical well-being even when bones are aching; smile even though a heart may be breaking with loss; do everything possible to conceal memory lapses; demonstrate a consistent willingness to try anything new; and scoff (with just the right, light touch of humor) at those mis­guided contemporaries who refuse to “live in the present.”
Here’s what one cannot do and be considered a person who is aging successfully: complain about health problems to anyone younger; weep openly for a friend or lover who has been dead more than a month or two; admit to depression or loneliness; express nostalgia for the past (either personal or historical); or voice any fear of future dependency— whether because of poor physical health, poor finances, or the worst scourge of advanced old age, Alzheimer’s disease. American society also looks with suspicion on old people who demand to be left alone to deal with aging in their own way: one must look neither too needy for com­panionship nor too content with solitude to be considered a role model for healthy aging rather than a discontented geezer or crone. Successful aging awards are conferred only on those who have managed (often as much by biological good luck as effort) to avoid, or convince others that they have avoided, the arduous uphill fight that eventually consumes all who live too long to retain control over either the mundane or the important decisions of everyday life. It’s great to be old—as long as one does not manifest too many of the typical problems of advanced age. The reality evaded by propagandists for the new old age is that we all are capable of aging successfully—until we aren’t.
I hope that this book about the genuine battles of growing old will provide support for all who draw their strength and courage from real­ity, however daunting that reality may be, rather than from platitudes about “defying old age.” This commonly used phrase in the annals of the so-called new old age fills me with rage, because the proximity of old age to death is not only undefiable but undeniable. Anger, by the way, is another emotion considered inappropriate in the old; the dubi­ous notion of the “wisdom of old age” rests on the belief that elders can, and should, transcend the passions, vaulting ambition, and com­petitiveness of their younger adult lives and arrive at some sort of peace that passeth all understanding.
The capacity to negotiate between the past and the present, not tran­scendence of the emotions and desires that have made us who we are, is the proper definition of aging with dignity. The great Russian-born dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who once seemed to fl oat above stage and earth as the preeminent male classical ballet star of his generation, bravely called himself a “dancing fossil” on the Today show. Having just turned sixty, he described the role of the older dancer as that of “a me­diator between your memories and your [current] abilities as a human skeleton.” This unromantic description of successful aging is applicable not only to nature’s blessed exceptions, who figure so prominently in most prescriptions for age-defying behavior, but to anyone whose in­tense desire for meaningful experience remains undiminished by a real­istic recognition of time’s indelible, deepening imprint. The search for new, earthbound ways to express lifelong passions—not to transcend them in some mythical metamorphosis that seems more akin to a heav­enly ascension—demands the most arduous efforts from and offers the most rich rewards for every aging human skeleton. Anyone who has outlived his or her passions has lived too long. Wordsworth got it ex­actly right, at the tender age of thirty-seven, in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”: O joy! That in our embers / Is something that doth live, / That nature yet remembers / What was so fugitive! 

From the Hardcover edition.

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What People are saying about this

"Jacoby sees a new ageism that doesn't just stigmatize old people for their years, but blames them for physical ills that no lifestyle adjustments or medicine can yet forestall...Among other perils, the `old old' have a roughly even chance of being counted among the mind-eaten ranks of Alzheimer's victims. We may not like to think that poverty, social isolation, crippling pain, dementia and loss of autonomy are likely to come calling the longer we live, but it's a fact."
- New York Times Book Review

"Jacoby's tough-minded refusal to buy the rosy image painted by advertisers and the 'anti-aging industry'-a greedy crowd that includes bogus health gurus, pill pushers and other medical hucksters-is empowering."
- Time Magazine

"Susan Jacoby, a sworn enemy of irrationality of every form, has some shockingly bad news: We will all die, and most of us will get old first-not 'older' but actually old. In this beautifully crafted book, she punctures the promises that aging will eventually be 'cured' either by a wonder drug or though positive thinking. The good news is that if we wake up from our delusions we may be better able to grow old with dignity."
- Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America

"Warning: This book is heretical. Susan Jacoby, one of our most perceptive public intellectuals, examines the current myth that it is possible to transcend the vicissitudes of old age by living right. In this fascinating look at the "new old age," she shows that it is pretty much like the old one-marked by declining health, loss of independence, and often dementia. It is no service to older Americans to demand that they conform, or pretend to conform, to current notions of a serene, wisdom-packed, if passionless, old age. We need to deal with it as it is, not as we would like it to be."
- Marcia Angell, M.D., Senior Lecturer in Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School

"For those of us who are old, Susan Jacoby's candor about old age is bracing; for those not yet old, Never Say Die should provide an unsentimental education for the years to come."
- Philip Roth

From the Publisher
"Drawing on research, personal experience, and anecdotes, [Jacoby] offers an important reality check for Americans enamored of the images of healthy, active seniors featured in advertisements." —-Booklist Starred Review

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