Saturday, January 01, 2011

When We're 65--whoo!

It's 1/1/11 and the first official baby boomers turn 65 this year, including me. There's a wearily and maddeningly cliched piece on the subject on the front page of the New York Times. Here's the online link, but don't bother unless you click on to the comments as well. There you will see the hostility behind the supposed irony of the piece expressed directly as generational resentment, with the promise of generational war. But more often you'll also see booming self-defense, a lot wittier and more trenchant than the piece itself.

One would have to be a fool not to note the practical considerations of this milestone--the relationship to Medicare and Social Security being paramount for many. Whatever the historical circumstances of our generation, we have lived these lives in these times, and it's everybody's right once they actually reach this age to think about every possible aspect of this past and our lives, as well as our relationship to the present and future.

We feared getting old as young people do. That illustration above comes from about 1969, purporting to show the Beatles as old men. It scared the hell out of me, but I put it up on the inside door of my room at the University of Iowa the semester I was at the Writers Workshop there, though I was mostly trying not to be sent off to kill or/and be killed. I suppose it was to scare myself into making good use of my time then, to not wait to accomplish something. Time's winged chariot sort of thing.

(But being disappointed that we didn't accomplish more in our lives is according to the Times piece another characteristic of our "self-absorbed" generation. Maybe this guy should have been in the car with me when I was 20, listening to an older farmer in Illinois talk about how little he'd done with his life. Regret--or as Richard Ford put it, "searing regret"-- is not exactly a boomer invention.)

Today of course this image means other things. First, most obviously, is that two of the Beatles didn't live to get that old. A second might be that the surviving two don't actually look like that. We do have a different sort of 60s (the age, not the decade), and gauging that is part of our task now.

Still, we are acutely aware that we're not here for all that much longer. And of what we may face between here and there. This image of the boomer generation holding all the cards is less than laughable, it looks like part of the problem. We're watching pensions disappear for those who predicated their lives on earning them. We're watching medical care costs skyrocket and insurance falter. And that generational resentment added to a more general callousness. A resentment that seems to hold a lot of projection. No, we probably can't expect much, not even what used to be called decency. We're dealing with the luck of the draw at each significant moment.

And the idiocy of our drug-dependent, for-profit and perversely regulated health and care systems puts us in the way of cruelty masked as care. Another Times piece today--the one with the most hits--is about "new" approaches to caring for Alzheimer's patients. Care that is little more than common sense: well-lit rooms are more cheerful, especially when they allow old eyes to see. Instead of drugs and feeding tubes, give them food they like, with good feelings attached. Chocolate works better than Xanax.

Care along the lines of Beatitudes--what a great name, too--is proving more effective and also costs less. It helps patients and caregivers. And it's loving. I'm sure everybody who reads this piece sees its wisdom. But when chocolate is substituted for Xanax, drug companies don't make outrageous profits. Thoughtful and courageous administrators and caregivers may cost more than minimum wage workers--although rules (by for-profits as well as government) probably prevent even badly paid caregivers from doing what they know is better. So while the Beatitudes approach may spread, there's a lot of power likely to be marshaled against it.

While it did take a certain creativity to discover that emotional memory may last even in those whose cognitive memory is eroded or short-circuited, it also takes the kind of close attention that family members give, as well as formed the basis for many of the insights of early psychology--Jung for instance. Today psychology is all about drugs and administering clever little tests to undergraduates and making big claims for the findings.

Paying close attention to others is not the opposite of paying close attention to yourself. It can be part of the same process. For example, a writer who doesn't precisely divulge her age--and how could you, at Salon--offers an observation that older people are nicer to each other, and she offers an opinion as to why that is, which is, if I might summarize it thus, we know to what extent we're all bullshit.

To which I'd add, we know to what extent we're all vulnerable. But there's another reason, an additionally heartening one. I saw my uncle at my niece's wedding last month. He's now in his late 70s, and he told me (as he did the last time I saw him, more than a year before) that he thinks about my mother a lot. She was his oldest sister, there was about 14 years difference in their ages. He says he doesn't remember a lot anymore, but he remembers her acts of kindness. It reminded me of the last conversation I had with his other older sister, my aunt, who was the middle child. In talking about her father, she remarked on how kind he was.

So kindness is remembered. And we can all accomplish kindness, and so be remembered for that.