In a characteristically mordant piece called “Daddy Trouble” in this month’s Atlantic magazine, Sandra Tsing Loh coins the term Elderschadenfreude to describe “the secret pleasure of hearing about aging parents that are even more impossible than yours.”
Loh’s 91-year-old father is incontinent, he’s horny, he’s happy, he’s horrendously expensive, and he’s going strong. She wishes he were dead. My parents are dead — reason, Loh quips, for “anti-Elderschadenfreude.” If Elderschadenfreude is pleasure in the misfortunes of those dealing with aged parents, then its antithesis must be envy of those no longer dealing with aged parents. After reading “Daddy Trouble” this morning and spending lunch with my best friend discussing her mother’s intubated, home-cared-for, endless dying, I’m grateful to have stepped off the eldercare treadmill. But while I don’t envy my friend, I don’t think she envies me either. And Loh acknowledges the paradox that when her maddening father dies, she’ll miss him.
Here’s another decent bet: the odds are good that forty years from now Loh’s daughters will be bitching just as vehemently about her. Elderschadenfreude redux. In her nineties Loh might enjoy the attention the way her father seems to be doing; who knows? His quality of life is pretty damn good, albeit maintained at tremendous cost to his daughter’s family. If Loh didn’t have to choose between her father’s care and her family’s nest egg, she’d be far less bitter. If the government subsidized caregiving and long-term care insurance, she wouldn’t have to choose.
Loh finds companionship if not comfort in Bittersweet Season, the chronicle of her mother’s decline by Jane Gross, who writes the New York Times’s “The New Old Age” blog. Bolstered by statistics from Gross, Loh describes the “Sisyphean slag heap of woe” that awaits so many as the Baby Boomers enter their seventies. She writes, “Owing to medical advancements, cancer deaths now peak at 65 and kill off just 20% of older Americans, while deaths due to organ failure peak at about 75 and kill off just another 15 percent, so the norm for seniors is becoming a long, drawn-out death after 85 [emphasis added], requiring ever-increasing assistance for such simple daily activities as eating, bathing, and moving.”
Another way to frame these figures is to point out that 65% of Americans over 75 are doing fine. At 88 and 90, my partner’s parents live busy, independent lives, although they drive us crazy and we pray they die instantaneously (a reasonable possibility given the way Bill, once a B-17 bomber pilot, careens along rural Westchester’s narrow roads). It’s the grimmest, most Elderschadenfreude-inspiring scenarios that grab our attention, while millions of older parents live alone and cope just fine. Of course people require more and more help as the years mount up. That’s the way it goes. Just as living means aging (and adjusting to constraints), aging means living.
The “norm for seniors” is becoming a long-drawn out life, not a long, drawn-out death. Disability rates continue to decline. If less of the burden of eldercare fell on individuals, we could celebrate instead of bemoan that remarkable achievement. We could generate a richer narrative of late life, a much-needed alternative to the boring, frightening, single-channel default narrative of physical decay. It would reflect the actual experience of growing older less fearfully and more accurately.