Plenty of people before me have lamented the way that we in industrialized countries regard our elderly as unproductive workers or obsolete products, and lock them away in institutions instead of taking them into our own homes out of devotion and duty. Most of these critiques are directed at the indifference and cruelty thus displayed to the elderly; what I wonder about is what it’s doing to the rest of us.
Segregating the old and the sick enables a fantasy, as baseless as the fantasy of capitalism’s endless expansion, of youth and health as eternal, in which old age can seem to be an inexplicably bad lifestyle choice, like eating junk food or buying a minivan, that you can avoid if you’re well-educated or hip enough. So that when through absolutely no fault of your own your eyesight begins to blur and you can no longer eat whatever you want without consequence and the hangovers start lasting for days, you feel somehow ripped off, lied to. Aging feels grotesquely unfair. As if there ought to be someone to sue.
We don’t see old or infirm people much in movies or on TV. We love explosive gory death onscreen, but we’re not so enamored of the creeping, gray, incontinent kind. Aging and death are embarrassing medical conditions, like hemorrhoids or eczema, best kept out of sight. Survivors of serious illness or injuries have written that, once they were sick or disabled, they found themselves confined to a different world, a world of sick people, invisible to the rest of us. Denis Johnson writes in his novel “Jesus’ Son”: “You and I don’t know about these diseases until we get them, in which case we also will be put out of sight.”
My own father died at home, in what was once my childhood bedroom. He was, in this respect at least, a lucky man. Almost everyone dies in a hospital now, even though absolutely nobody wants to, because by the time we’re dying all the decisions have been taken out of our hands by the well, and the well are without mercy. Of course we hospitalize the sick and the old for some good reasons (better care, pain relief), but I think we also segregate the elderly from the rest of society because we’re afraid of them, as if age might be contagious. Which, it turns out, it is.
...Another illusion we can’t seem to relinquish, partly because large and moneyed industries thrive on sustaining it, is that with enough money and information we’ll be able to control how we age and die. But one of the main aspects of aging is the loss of control. Even people with the money to arrange to age in comfort can die in agony and indignity, gabbling like infants, forgetting their own children, sans everything. Death is a lot like birth (which people also gird themselves for with books and courses and experts) — everyone’s is different, some are relatively quick and painless and some are prolonged and traumatic, but they’re all pretty messy and unpleasant and there’s not a lot you can do to prepare yourself.
I’m not trying to romanticize the beauty of osteoporosis, the wisdom of Alzheimer’s or the dignity of incontinence. More than one old person has ordered me, “Do not get old.” They did not appear to be kidding.
But we don’t have a choice. You are older at this moment than you’ve ever been before, and it’s the youngest you’re ever going to get. The mortality rate is holding at a scandalous 100 percent. Pretending death can be indefinitely evaded with hot yoga or a gluten-free diet or antioxidants or just by refusing to look is craven denial.
You Are Going to Die - By Tim Kreider
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