Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Successful Aging Might Be A Failure

No Country For Old Age by Joseph E Davis from the Hedgehog Review, articulates clearly something that has been bothering me for some time.  We are awash in people telling us that age is just a number...the Bible never mentions retirement...seventy is the new fifty...we should increase our body-worship attention to fitness after age sixty...we should get new hobbies, new lives, and gosh-darnit, we shouldn't give in to aging.  And science might be curing it, too! The implication being that if you don't do as they recommend, you are failing at being old.

Unless, of course, preparing for death is one of our primary tasks in life.  If you aren't going to do that when you are old, when, exactly, were you going to get around to it? Is God going to say "Well, at least you kept playing tennis until you were eighty.  I'm proud of you for that."

I usually dislike writers putting quite so many phrases in quotes, but Davis gets it just about right, because so many of the common phrases of our discourse about aging are suspect, and deserve to be belittled.  A few quotes pulled from the article:
(Margaret) Manning quotes the actor Jamie Lee Curtis, then 56: " If I can challenge old ideas about aging, I will feel more and more invigorated. I want to represent this new way. I want to be a new version of the 70-year-old woman. Vital, strong, very physical, very agile. I think that the older I get, the more yoga I’m going to do." Manning notes that Curtis “isn’t afraid of getting older. Instead of seeing life after 60 as a time to take it easy, she is looking forward to the opportunity to make the absolute most of her life.”
I dunno.  It sounds like like getting older is exactly what Curtis is afraid of. 
Aging well by such criteria requires continuous demonstrations of success through signs of initiative and energy. Appearance—looking healthy, fit, and “put together”—is also crucial: “To look old is to be old” ...Again, the measure is the body. Health, fitness, a youthful appearance, entrepreneurial energy: These are not “add-ons,” like fashion or cosmetics; they are something you are.
I think this is deeply related to the myths that attitude actually creates health and longer life. Cancer patients are given this ringamarole from first diagnosis, that you aren't supposed to let cancer "beat you," that you are supposed to fight back and beat cancer. Unfortunately, there isn't any evidence that this makes the slightest difference. Everyone who has cancer fights hard, because the fear is great and the treatments are difficult. In retrospect, the ones who survive we say "See? She didn't give in to cancer!" So too with aging. People believe if you do all these amazing things you will live longer, and if you don't do them you are "giving in" and are going to die sooner. Does anyone talk about "giving in" to a broken leg, or hypertension? Christians have their own versions of this, certainly, of positive confession or Naming and Claiming.
...antiaging and successful aging push toward a similar framing of old age as undesirable and, at least for a time, preventable. Both treat frailty and disability as indications of failure and emphasize individual choice and effort without regard to the hardships and inequalities many older people actually endure. Both promote an evasion of the inevitable confrontations with disability, disease, and death.
I don't generally much like Carl Jung, but he had it right with this: 
“a human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.” (Emphasis mine)
It would be easy to say that facing death and successful aging are not mutually exclusive.  However, in the traditional meaning of facing death and the current meaning of successful aging, they are at least at odds. I don't think you can focus on both at once.


james said...

If by successful aging we mean "trying to stay young," then it's a fool's errand.
OTOH, Deuteronomy says Moses' eyes weren't weak nor his strength gone, and I suppose Enoch had "successful aging," though not quite of his own doing.
But I can't visualize Moses doing yoga every morning and slapping on hair restorer. He had other things to do.

The Desert Fathers make an interesting contrast to pop ideas about health and leisure.

Sam L. said...

I'm just toodling along as best I can. I have awakened beneath the grass roughly 250 times, but not since '78. I know where I will be interred and not wake up. If I do as well as my mother, I've got about 20 years to go. Life is good.

Grim said...

The flaw may be in not facing death at a younger age, rather than in trying to preserve strength and virtue to an older one. You face death every day at war, or if you ride motorcycles; this is as true at 25 as at 45 as at 65 (and 85, if you can still keep it up). The Japanese ethic that a samurai best realizes his virtue by remembering that he has to die matches the Medieval Christian ethic of memeto mori. Embracing the fact of death can indeed help you avoid the pursuit of instrumentals in favor of the higher, better purpose of constructing a life you can be proud of in retrospect.

If you're not thinking about that when you're young, you're not taking enough risks. Go to sea. Go to war. Ride horses. Live boldly enough that death is not a stranger.

Uncle Bill said...

Like your blog, even though I don’t always understand some of the things you discuss, particularly the theology. However, as someone dealing with multiple life-threatening, chronic illnesses, including cancer, I have to take issue with your statement that you can’t “fight” cancer. Here are some of the ways you can fight (or, conversely, decline to fight):

• Continue to take your chemo, even though it is difficult and unpleasant to take, and makes you feel lousy after it is over.
• Along the same lines, diligently take your prescription meds, even though they cost a fortune and have unpleasant side effects.
• Continue to exercise even when you have no energy and everything hurts, and it’s a pain in the neck to get to the gym. Complete physical therapy when it is prescribed.
• Eat a good diet, when your appetite is calling out for comfort food.
• Don’t drink to excess, even though a good, stiff drink is one of the few things that you can still enjoy.
• Don’t pester your doctor for powerful pain relievers.
• Maintain a social network, even when you would prefer to just crawl into your cocoon.
• Don’t prepare an easy “way out” for that day when you decide you just don’t want to fight any more.

Well, I have actually done the last one. I know I will eventually lose the fight to something or other, but I plan to fight as long as I am able, dammit.

Sam L. said...

My wife died of cancer. It ate her up, and wore her out. She was tired of fighting it.
23 years ago, next month.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I agree that you "fight" in exactly the way Uncle Bill describes. My mother died of her third recurrence of cancer after 12 years of it. But some of that is an act of the will in doing. If you have a bad attitude and feel defeated but still take your chemo it's the same thing. The other things are usually associations, not protective. You go see people even when you'd rather not, not because it adds a day to your span, but because it gives meaning to the days that you have. Exercise, activity, and social engagements are things that are front-loaded for pain, but produce better feeling in the long run. I don't think they extend life.

Grim's point is interesting, because until very recently risk came to you, you didn't have to seek it. Evolution must have favored moderately high but not very high risk taking, because we still see it, and that is what is universally admired: courage but not madness, except in the calculated madness of extremity. Yet in most ages before our own, courage involved embracing reality not adding in risks. Cowardice sometimes succeeds, but ultimately does not because it is in the end a denial of reality.

james said...

Now that I think of it, I posted some thoughts somewhat related to your original point a while back--it was good for me to have been a baby.

PenGun said...

I am 73 now and I see many people my age and younger shuffling about. I just walk up the mountain every 4 or 5 days and that keeps me striding about the place. I guess the bears I run into count as some kind of risk, but I'm used to them. ;)