Tag Archives: aging

August 3, 2016

A smile-filled rebuttal of ageism

I’m sitting here with a smile on my face after watching a 90 year old woman perform on America’s Got Talent — on You Tube.

If you’re worried that maybe you’re getting old and set in your ways, watching this video will be a great tonic.  If you don’t like being ageist but old people seem so, well, OLD and predictable  —  this will sure give you a different perspective on what’s possible.

And what the heck  –  just watch it because it’s a bit outrageous and totally fun:
http://www.upworthy.com/watch-this-90-year-old-woman-give-the-performance-of-a-lifetime-on-national-tv?c=reccon3

Yesterday I ordered a book entitled:  Aging or Ageless:  Rising Like a Phoenix from the Myth of Aging by Ron Zeller, a Landmark Forum leader who died recently at age 83.   It’s a book about transcending aging that doesn’t focus on how to stop aging but instead on how to be “ageless” in the face of any circumstance you face.  Ron Zeller got his first diagnosis of terminal cancer at age 60 (which he beat), and his second at nearly 80.  In the 20 years in between, he kept on transforming people’s lives by leading courses for Landmark while taking his health and vitality up to an entirely new level as an endurance athlete. At the age of 64, he ran and won his age division in the 100-mile Wasatch Endurance Race in Utah, one of the most demanding ultra-marathons in the world —  the first of many races he ran in places all over the world.  In 2004 Ron took up power lifting and by the age of 72 had had broken three US national records for his age. As recently as age 77 he completed the 135 mile Bad Water desert endurance race, running solo between the lowest and highest points in the continental United States.

I wonder if that 90 year old woman on America’s Got Talent has read Ron’s book!  Maybe she didn’t have to – because she sensed the secret to vitality on her own.   When I have a minute, I’ll try to find out what happened to her afterwards.   If you do, please let me know.  And if I like Ron’s book, I’ll share it with you.


July 6, 2016

Where does working age end? Who is too old to work?

I’ve been trying to draw more attention to the special healthcare needs of the working age population since they power the engine of the economy.  The healthcare industry needs to expand its focus beyond symptoms and select treatments that rapidly restore the ability to function in this group  — to help them recover faster and more completely, to keep their jobs and livelihoods, and avoid the negative consequences of prolonged worklessness for them and their family!  Doctors and other healthcare professionals often don’t really THINK ENOUGH about the impact of their treatment regimens on working people’s lives outside the office.

But as I advocate, I’ve begun pondering that definition: “working age”.  It seems safe to use 18 as the low end of the range (even though kids younger than that do work, most of them are still in school).  But what about the top end?  At what age should we stop seeing work as the norm?  Stop expecting anyone to work?   Start thinking it’s silly to insist on working?  What term should we use to describe those who have lived for a really long time but are still very active and working?  What term should we use to describe people who are the exact same age but the press of years has made them too feeble to work anymore, even though they are “healthy”?  We all know people in both of these categories.  Simply calling them both old seems inaccurate.

I found a thoughtful article from the World Health Organization (WHO) exploring how to define “old” or “elderly” — in Africa!   Have you noticed how often we notice oddities about our own culture when we look outside it?  That’s when we notice the automatic assumptions and blind spots we’ve been living with.

I think you’ll enjoy reading the excerpts I’ve pasted below from the full WHO article.  I have colored in red the parts I found most eye-opening.  They are a breath of realistic and straight-spoken fresh air about how humans age.

Bottom line as I see it:  In developing societies where the administrative and legal fictions of retirement and pensions do not exist, the people tend to define old and elderly straightforwardly and on a case by case basis depending on the actual circumstances of humans as they accumulate years (and as younger generations come behind).  Old age begins when one assumes the social role of an elder, when one withdraws from social roles either because it is time for someone younger to take over or because of decline in physical / mental capability.  And finally, when it is no longer possible to actively contribute, one is definitely well into old age.

By that reasoning, if you are still able to play the roles and carry the same load of a person a decade younger, you are not old yet.  I still don’t know what to call you though.  Or, more truthfully, I don’t know what to call myself.  I am still in there pitching though I turn 70 years old this year.  I did recently give up one of my roles to make room for a younger person who deserved her day in the sun.  Didn’t want to hog it and hold her back.

Proposed Working Definition of an Older Person in Africa for the MDS Project

Most developed world countries have accepted the chronological age of 65 years as a definition of ‘elderly’ or older person, but like many westernized concepts, this does not adapt well to the situation in Africa. While this definition is somewhat arbitrary, it is many times associated with the age at which one can begin to receive pension benefits.

Although there are commonly used definitions of old age, there is no general agreement on the age at which a person becomes old. The common use of a calendar age to mark the threshold of old age assumes equivalence with biological age, yet at the same time, it is generally accepted that these two are not necessarily synonymous.

As far back as 1875, in Britain, the Friendly Societies Act, enacted the definition of old age as, “any age after 50”, yet pension schemes mostly used age 60 or 65 years for eligibility. (Roebuck, 1979). The UN has not adopted a standard criterion, but generally use 60+ years to refer to the older population (personal correspondence, 2001).

The more traditional African definitions of an elder or ‘elderly’ person correlate with the chronological ages of 50 to 65 years, depending on the setting, the region and the country. ….. In addition, chronological or “official” definitions of ageing can differ widely from traditional or community definitions of when a person is older.  Lacking an accepted and acceptable definition, in many instances the age at which a person became eligible for statutory and occupational retirement pensions has become the default definition. ….

Defining old
“The ageing process is of course a biological reality which has its own dynamic, largely beyond human control. However, it is also subject to the constructions by which each society makes sense of old age. In the developed world, chronological time plays a paramount role. The age of 60 or 65, roughly equivalent to retirement ages in most developed countries, is said to be the beginning of old age.

In many parts of the developing world, chronological time has little or no importance in the meaning of old age. Other socially constructed meanings of age are more significant such as the roles assigned to older people; in some cases it is the loss of roles accompanying physical decline which is significant in defining old age. Thus, in contrast to the chronological milestones which mark life stages in the developed world, old age in many developing countries is seen to begin at the point when active contribution is no longer possible.” (Gorman, 2000)

Categories of definitions
When attention was drawn to older populations in many developing countries, the definition of old age many times followed the same path as that in more developed countries, that is, the government sets the definition by stating a retirement age. Considering that a majority of old persons in sub-Saharan Africa live in rural areas and work outside the formal sector, and thus expect no formal retirement or retirement benefits, this imported logic seems quite illogical. Further, when this definition is applied to regions where relative life expectancy is much lower and size of older populations is much smaller, the utility of this definition becomes even more limited.

Study results published in 1980 provides a basis for a definition of old age in developing countries (Glascock, 1980). This international anthropological study was conducted in the late 1970’s and included multiple areas in Africa. Definitions fell into three main categories: 1) chronology; 2) change in social role (i.e. change in work patterns, adult status of children and menopause); and 3) change in capabilities (i.e. invalid status, senility and change in physical characteristics). Results from this cultural analysis of old age suggested that change in social role is the predominant means of defining old age. When the preferred definition was chronological, it was most often accompanied by an additional definition.

…… If one considers the self-definition of old age, that is old people defining old age, as people enter older ages it seems their self-definitions of old age become decreasingly multifaceted and increasingly related to health status (Brubaker, 1975, Johnson, 1976 and Freund, 1997).


October 19, 2015

WHY would I want to live to 101?

I am a bit upset and depressed because I just learned my life expectancy is 101 — according to the electronic calculator that analyzed my answers on the Health Age Questionnaire.  I found it on the website of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.  It seems like a good organization aimed mostly at doctors who prevent chronic disease by prescribing and teaching healthy lifestyles.  However, they had better come up with a better argument for lifestyle change than this:   “Wow, if you do everything we recommend, you get to live until you’re entirely useless, helpless, and bored out of your mind.”

After I got the 101 prediction, I redid the questionnaire, this time shading several answers to the “sad” side instead of the “happy” side — and the darned thing STILL says I’m going to live to 94.  Phooey!  Who the heck WANTS to live that long?  NOT ME!   I can clearly imagine my quality of life is likely to be by then. By the time Americans get over the age of 90-something, the VAST majority are demented, frail, and unable to live independently — and I might add have become totally irrelevant in the eyes of the rest of American society, with a status more similar to pets or babies than adults.

That was my dad’s fate.   He died just a few days before he turned 89 — after refusing medical care for a heart attack because he had been WAITING for a way to die.  Before that day, his medical problems were basically age-related degeneration.

A Harvard College, Harvard Medical School grad, former Director of one of the National Institutes of Health, my dad re-invented himself and his career at least three times.   Originally trained as a pediatrician, he spent most of his career focused on child and maternal health, family planning, and other services to facilitate optimal development and health of the population.  At about age 50, he left the pressure of Washington DC, gave up on a difficult marriage to my mother, and moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  He became a county health officer, developed a wide circle of friends and got involved in community affairs.  He was always a kind, optimistic, creative, and positive person, even though he didn’t have much of a sense of humor.  But his fun-loving second wife put him up to a lot of innocent mischief.  We have a photo of him in Florida wearing a lei on his head, a bra made of coconut shells and a hula skirt — and a HUGE SMILE (while stone sober, I may add).

Around about age 80 he “retired” from medicine.  And then, with some partners, he started a Sylvan Learning Center franchise and founded the Delmarva Education Foundation.  He was still in there pitching, though clearly slowing down.

Shirley, his beloved second wife died in May of 2006, the year he turned 84.   A few days after that, he commented to me “I’ll never be the center of anyone’s life ever again.” His zest for life was gone because she was.  She had cherished him and nurtured him — and vice versa.  He was lonely, sad after that, and grew increasingly bitter.  He had zero interest in finding a new companion or keeping up his social life. Treatment for “depression” had no effect.  My sister who lived nearby did yeoman work to be family and provide companionship to him — and do the practical work required to keep him in the housing complex for independent elders where he lives.   By the time she gave up and moved him to assisted living, there were FOUR part-time workers supporting him — plus her.  However, Daddy was right, of course — he never was the center of anyone’s life again.

He had already given me his healthcare power of attorney.  We had explicitly discussed his wish that I protect him from “the medical juggernaut” in case he was unable to do it himself.  He also did done some exploring of ways to exit gracefully.  I sent him an article from the New England Journal about what dying is like for patients with terminal conditions who refuse food and drink as they near the end of life.  But when my dad in Maryland discussed this with his psychologist, the psychologist pronounced the method both a sin and against the law — so Daddy resigned himself to sticking around.   In February of 2008, almost two years after Shirley’s death, Daddy (who could no longer write because of a worsening tremor) dictated this to his psychologist:

Because of my many disabilities – vision, hearing, etc. – I am happy to take advantage of the first opportunity that the Lord provides to join my wife Shirley in heaven.  My daughter Jennifer holds the medical power of attorney for me.  As a physician, she has the knowledge to determine what conditions are most likely to result in death, or result in disability that I would have to live with.  In the former case, I would like medical care withheld if my condition would ordinarily result in death, and would like for hospice to provide palliative care.  In the latter case, I will just ‘grin and bear it’.   I have made peace with the Lord in this decision, and ask that all my children support the decision that I have made.

As he neared 90, the burdens of age had became even heavier.  He still had no “terminal” conditions other than age.  He was deaf, could no longer read or see the computer screen due to macular degeneration, had a tremor, chronic pain due to joint degeneration, and was very weak.   He had lost all of his curiosity and most of his mental power.  At one point, he was on 14 different medications,  most of them with no discernible effect.  I asked his doctors to stop as many as possible because nothing could reverse the progress of aging.

In the end, Daddy handled his exit firmly and gracefully, by himself, when he developed severe chest pain.  He obviously recognized it for what it was — a potential way out.   He told the ER doctor:  “I’m just here to check and make sure it IS a heart attack.  If so, all I want is morphine, no treatment.”   The ER doctor, luckily, had her wits about her and suggested hospice.  He immediately said yes.  He lived less than a month — long enough to have one last Christmas Dinner with his kids and grandkids.  Then he let go and left this earth.

More than twenty years earlier, Daddy and I had completed a multi-scenario medical decision-making worksheet.  It was designed to make us think about and decide what we wanted our caregivers to do in various medical scenarios if we became unable to express our wishes. Surprisingly, that conversation wasn’t a downer at all.  In fact it was the best conversation I think I EVER had with him because we talked frankly and intimately about what made life worth living for each of us personally — and when it wouldn’t be worth continuing.   At the time, he said he wanted to be kept alive until he couldn’t enjoy the day anymore.   Yet as things turned out, he was forced to live four years after he had stopped being able to enjoy the day.  .

We humans have invented ways that are KEEPING people alive longer, but we haven’t yet invented ways to safely and humanely allow those who HAVE BEEN kept alive past the time when they find quality of life tolerable to say they have “had enough, thank you” and move on to the next realm.

I don’t want to share my Dad’s fate.  The idea of being sidelined, trying to think up “ways to pass the time” because I’ve become too deaf and blind to read or interact with others or do anything useful, beset with the chronic aches and pains of aging bones and joints makes me feel YUCK, or more accurately, DREAD.

Even if I were a “hale and hearty” 90 year old, I can’t think of a PURPOSE that I personally would find exciting enough to make life worth living when I’ve been alive that long.  “Smelling the roses” doesn’t do it for me — because I am already starting to feel like I’ve had my fill of a lot of things.  Been there, done that.  Been THERE and done THAT, too.

For the foreseeable future, my current purpose for living are these:
1)  Devote my energy and talents to leaving the campground of life better than I found it.
2)  Enjoy everyday life with my husband, family, and friends — and the outdoor world.
3)  Seek beauty and truth, especially in music, opera, theatre, dance, the visual arts, and spiritual practice.
4)  Grow in wisdom and kindness.  A VERY COOL thing is that personal growth & development in these two areas are available to all ages, including the very old (ahem, until dementia sets in).

What does this mean for you — if anything?   Maybe you could think about what makes life worth living for you.  It will make you feel STRONG and GOOD to do it.    Fill out a Five Wishes living will from Aging with Dignity that gives your caregivers instructions for how to care for you in case you can’t tell them yourself at a critical moment.   And, do think about what you want the quality of your life to be like and how long you DO want to live.   Do YOU really WANT to live to 101 or to 120?  Why?  What FOR?