Certain writers have helped shape how I see the world. Some of them—James Kunstler, Barbara Ehrenreich, Neil Postman, Lewis Mumford—have allowed me to break free of many of the myths and even lies that frame the thinking of many in America. I’d add Susan Jacoby to that list.
The first time I read one of her books, it was The Age of American Unreason, a hard-hitting, nonfiction work that framed the dumbing down of America in a way that was systematic and understandable, but also well-researched, and not one that tilted at the usual suspects. As Jacoby describes it in the book, our problems are a result of “a virulent mixture of anti-rationalism and low expectations.” She was clear in the book that our state “of unreason” was also permanent, not temporary.
I apparently missed that she wrote a book about aging in America. Much like Ehrenreich (see her take down of “positive thinking”), Jacoby doesn’t pull any punches, or mince her words. Neither does she subscribe to the “happy, happy, joy, joy” school of self-help gibberish and positive affirmations as a blanket “cure all” for our national ills.
America is an aging nation. My home state, Maine, is the oldest of the 50 states. Our older population—persons who are 65 years or older—numbered nearly 40 million in 2009 (the latest year for which data is available). That’s 12.9 percent of the U.S. population, or about one in every eight Americans. By 2030, that number nearly doubles to 72.1 million, or more than twice what the number was in 2000. People who are 65+ will number one in five in 2030.
While aging gets acknowledged, it’s mainly communicated in a manner that’s false, couched in a host of magical ideas, like “60 is the new 40,” and the belief that the intersection of medicine and technology will solve all the attendant problems of people getting old in large numbers.
Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of The New Old Age is just the kind of book that everyone that believes the answer to aging is just around the corner should read—but I know they won’t. Jacoby’s book came out in 2011. I spent the past year managing a grant specific to aging in place, and Maine’s rapidly aging population. I received countless emails, had books recommended to me, and heard a great deal of poppycock, really, about the issue. Not once did I run across Jacoby’s book. I found it by “accident” at Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, two weeks ago.
I’m pretty sure I know why I never heard any program officers or other “experts” on aging mention Jacoby and her book. There’s very little sugar-coating taking place in the book’s 300+ pages.
What there is instead, is an honest assessment of how the cultural milieu that was the late 1960s and early 1970s, has shaped our current belief (held mainly by boomers) that age can somehow be defied. Jacoby writes about how “for the oldest and the youngest boomers, there was a belief in the possibility of repeated self-reinventions—through therapy, through religious conversion, through self-help, through determined efforts to change the very shape of our flesh—without regard to chronological age.”
Eating right, exercise, a little cosmetic surgery—all manner of beliefs are put forth, with the ultimate belief being that somehow, magically, we might always bask in “young old age,” and not transition over to the dreaded, “old old age,” like the old people we remember when we were growing up.
The chapter, “A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Lose,” hit the hardest of all of them from my perspective. Dealing with the topic of age-related dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form. Jacoby details what she considers the “most important thing to know” about it—how many of the old—nearly half of those over eighty-five, will be affected by it. Jacoby details the media’s ongoing denial of the risks and the numbers.
It was interesting running across this review in the New York Times, which slagged the book and Jacoby personally. The reviewer, Ted C. Fishman, characterizing the book as an “angry barrage peppered with enthusiastically snide asides.” Fishman also attempted to peg Jacoby as someone personally struggling to come to terms with aging (she was 65 when the book came out, in 2011). He apparently felt it was necessary to counter Jacoby’s “doom and gloom” by citing one study that contradicted what Jacoby posited about Alzheimer’s. He also took her to task for overlooking things like innovative group-living arrangements—like the “Green House” model, as the end-all-be-all for the sheer volume of the old people that are set to hit us like a tsunami in another decade.
Here’s a review that was a bit more even-handed (in my opinion) about the book, by Judith Viorst.
Ultimately that’s always the plight of truth-tellers and writers that eschew blowing smoke in our direction, simply to make us feel good, or to sell books. There’s plenty of those types of books, articles, and hustlers looking to cash in by making us feel good, or keep us in denial about aging.
I prefer knowing what’s ahead. A reality-based approach at least gives us a fighting chance to prepare for it, putting things in place and possibly even finding some community-based solutions.