‘But hoping for worse health and shorter lives hardly seems consistent with the American dream.’ With such pithy insights, Susan Jacoby – the fiercely rational intellectual whose previous books include The Age of American Unreason – exposes the banality of modern prejudices that have become attached to old age and the process of ageing.
One such prejudice is that ageing has been redefined as a state of mind, in which people are exhorted somehow to think themselves young. This means, argues Jacoby, that the real problems of disease and infirmity associated with real, ‘old old age’ are dismissed. As she argues: ‘In real old age, as opposed to fantasyland, most people who live beyond their mid-eighties can expect a period of extended frailty and disability before they die. Given the high proportion of illderly among the old old, the common boomer fantasy of dropping dead after a heart attack while making love at the age of ninety-five bears about as much relationship to the reality of old age as the earlier boomer fantasy of painless childbirth without drugs bore to the reality of labour as experienced by most women.’
Cheery stuff, huh? Fortunately the energy and sharpness of Jacoby’s writing makes this a rather less gloomy read than the endless rounds of policy discussions about the ‘burden’ imposed on pension systems and healthcare by an ageing population. There’s a lot to disagree with, and rather too much solipsism in Jacoby’s ready reflections on her own life and the circumstances of her loved ones. And there’s an element of fatalism to Jacoby’s view of ‘old old age’ itself. But in general, Never Say Die is a refreshing attempt to define the problems of ageing in social and cultural, rather than purely individual, terms and find fresh ways of engaging with those problems.
For example, the book’s concluding chapter, while acknowledging rather awkwardly that she is attempting to fulfil her friends’ demand to end the book on a ‘positive note’, nonetheless makes some convincing arguments. Jacoby recommends that old people stay in cities, close to amenities and other people, rather than moving to ‘retirement communities’ where they can easily become trapped in their apartments with no transport or reason to leave; and that they are able to keep working: ‘I confess that I cannot understand the appeal of unlimited “free time”, as one does not need to be a workaholic to question the advisability of too much leisure.’ Above all, she recommends staying angry: ‘Refusing to conform to the emotionally correct image of old age as a time of placid contemplation is an affirmation of self.’
Where Jacoby struggles – as she recognises – is in dealing satisfactorily with the issue of care for those for whom independent minds and bodies are already a thing of the past. Discussing her 89-year-old, infirm mother and her grandmother, who died just after her hundredth birthday, Jacoby – who, as a self-confessed ‘baby boomer’, is about 65 – writes: ‘Mom needs help, but I can no more give up my life now – or, to be honest, I am no more willing to give up my life – than I was 15 years ago. Nor was my mother willing to give up her life so that she could provide her own mother the kind of full-time care that Gran provided for my great-grandmother.’