The business of getting old

Bi-weekly columnist examines issues likely to accompany advancing age

As people age and begin to get “old,” different things happen to them. Some people are lucky, and they age gracefully with few breakdowns in their bodies and good health to the end. Others simply begin to fall apart when they pass into their sixties.

We’ve heard about those who now creak when they walk and others who have pains in various places of the body. Back aches seem increasingly to be the order of the day. Inability to sleep and the need for constant urination take over.

Most of those getting “old” begin to fear a lesser quality of life. They worry about cancer finding its way onto their skin or into their organs. They worry about strokes finishing their ordinary lives and heart attacks thumping them during the night. They wonder if they can manage their blood pressure and sugar ratings.

In fact, older people start to read magazines and pamphlets that promise miraculous cures or ways to prevent getting old. Eat this food, eat that food, ingest this pill, throw out that pill, discover this natural food, trust that natural food—and on and on it goes. Indeed, several companies catering to seniors label themselves as “Stop Aging Now” outlets.

Many older people would prefer to be young again. They might do things differently, but every elder I know would love to turn back the clock—to find some sort of Fountain of Youth. I’ve also heard some seniors wishing to live longer—until age 150 perhaps.

That would be wonderful if the brain remained intact and people were as good with thoughts and words at 150 as they were at 30.  However, we happen to know that forgetfulness and mild dementia creep up on 90 per cent of people as they age. The worst problem of course is Alzeimer’s disease where memory and recognition simply depart.

Age 150 and beyond would be okay if the body didn’t deteriorate. It wouldn’t be any fun to be extremely old and have no eyesight, no hearing, no walking ability, no speaking capacity, and very little skin on the bones. Even with a mind still functioning, this meltdown of the body would be hard to take.

Jonathon Swift, the 18th Century satirist who wrote “Gulliver’s Travels,” wrote about just such a society of grotesque characters who had been granted eternal life on earth. This depiction occurs in Book Three of “Gulliver’s Travels,” a section of Swift’s story that is rarely read anymore.

In that section, when Gulliver hears about these people, he is at first charmed and says he would like to have earthly eternal life. He lists the advantages of living several hundred years. He speaks of the wisdom he could impart to the younger generation, the fortunes he could amass, and the errors he could correct.

Gulliver clearly has forgotten one key point. Though nature may have given these people long life, nature never said they would keep their youth. Indeed, when people wish for a lengthy life, they want everything to be the same as when they had all their faculties and their bodies were in their prime.

When Gulliver meets some of these extremely old people who must live on forever despite being decrepit and ghastly, he is horrified. He decides that it’s important that humans die after a reasonable period of time on this earth. Given that our bodies fall apart and our minds disappear as a natural part of earthly processes, perhaps eternal earthly living is not desirable.

As surely, then, as the earth spins and orbits the sun, we will continue to age. We can only hope we remain mobile and able to think as we slide toward that last goodbye.