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Old, but fully alive

By Patricia Clarke

Global graying! Silver tsunami! Dementia epidemic! 

I can’t pick up a newspaper these days without learning what an intractable social problem I am. My elderly cohort and I are overwhelming health resources, driving governments into bankruptcy and should drift off on an ice floe, if with global warming there are any left.

Christopher Buckley, a well-known American writer who is 57, devotes his book Boomsday to an anticipated war of the generations. He proposes offering useless old folk financial incentives for mass suicide. 

Martin Amis, a well-known British writer, age 60, complained earlier this year that the elderly are “an invasion of terrible immigrants, stinking out the restaurants and cafés and shops.” Faced with a swarm of “very demented old people,” he predicts “a sort of civil war between old and young in 10 to 15 years time” unless this doddering plague can be checked. His solution: euthanasia booths on street corners offering those who volunteer to off themselves “a martini and a medal” (the first poisoned, the second posthumous).

They remind me of Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal, a 1729 satire suggesting that the impoverished Irish sell what they had in abundance — babies — for the English landlord’s dinner. Swift wrote that year-old infants would provide the sweetest, tenderest meal, but as a friend reminded me, there could also be a market for well-aged beef. 

I was thinking over these unappetizing invitations to rescue the national finances when my friend Margaret phoned to invite me to her 90th birthday party. Margaret lives alone on the pensions she earned during a long working life. She sees her doctors for regular checkups, which probably don’t cost other taxpayers more than she pays in income tax, but she doesn’t have much time for doctors’ waiting rooms as she spends up to 20 hours a week volunteering.

That’s the story for many of my contemporaries. Demented? Doddering? We’re delivering Meals on Wheels, staffing services for other seniors and reading stories to hospitalized children. Churches couldn’t keep going without us. Neither could many other agencies. 

Canadians are living longer, yes. Medical care is expensive, yes. Must that add up to economic ruin? Only if as soon as we check out of work we check into the hospital. In fact, many work well past age 65 and stay healthy and active and tax-paying long into their 80s. Diagnoses of dementia are declining. Our aging brains, it turns out, are livelier than we thought; they can even grow new nerve cells. Only a few of us will need expensive long-term medical care, mostly only in our last six months, and even that could be sliced if we could be cared for at home, where we would rather be. Like my friend Bill. He died this spring at 88, living at home at no cost to other taxpayers for all but his last 36 hours.

Don’t let the doomsayers write us off. We still have life to live and gifts to give. Maybe it’s true that you’re only as old as you feel. Consider the governor of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. He had to resign after he was seen on television apparently having sex with three women. The governor is 84.

Patricia Clarke may have passed her “best before” date, but she still buys green bananas. 

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