The elephant in the room

When I posted about getting accepted by the 2008 Age Boom Academy, I was hoping to find out why it’s so hard to galvanize a national conversation around longevity-related issues. I spent last week at the Academy learning the answer, and it isn’t pretty.

The government really isn’t interested in looking after our frailest citizens. And on an individual level, we’re pretty squeamish as well. “The Animal Rescue League got in more quickly to Ground Zero at 9/11 than Human Services,” pointed out Dr. Robert Butler, whose International Longevity Institute sponsored the seminar. “They had a plan,” he continued. “How many states practice their nursing home evacuation plans?”

More examples?
Health care: There are no national standards for professional in-home caregivers. Not-for-profit nursing homes deliver better care, but most of the industry is for profit and regulations are enforced laxly if at all.
Elder abuse: Perperators are mostly family members; it’s grossly underreported; and unlike child abuse or domestic violence, there’s no federal policy making it a crime. Unless — after 30 years — activists finally get the Elder Justice Act through Congress.
Scientific research: Only a few private-sector organizations fund biogerontology — research into the fundamental biological mechanisms of aging — despite the possibility of delaying or preventing the onset of many diseases.

Dick Wald, now at the Columbia University School of Journalism, pulled no punches: “The media doesn’t cover aging because there’s no conflict, and the politics of the country have not yet become engaged.” Calling this bias toward conflict “the besetting sin of journalism,” Wald encouraged us to move beyond it in an attempt to change the underlying culture: to seek out ways in which aging has value. “Oddly enough, this is a philosophical question, not a pragmatic question,” he said. “Of what good to you is the thing itself? Why is being older good for you? If you can find the people who are interested in that answer, you will have done something of more lasting value.”

I felt better when I heard that, because it feels like this project is on that track. I felt even better when Wald said, “One of the solutions to aging well may not be as obvious as you think, which is, ‘Keep working, stupid.’” I also like the Quixotic challenge of tackling denial itself, our absurd aversion to envisioning our own aging, disability, and death. The father of a friend of mine, in his late 80s and extremely frail, finally typed up a list of what he owns —  “in case something happens.” Well, something’s gonna happen. That’s the elephant in the room. We’ll be in far better shape, as individuals and as a society, if we face the realities of old age instead of waiting for a physiological or demographic tipping point to force us to.

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