February 2012

ancient parent, resentful child – Elderschadenfreude ho!

In a characteristically mordant piece called “Daddy Trouble” in this month’s Atlantic magazine, Sandra Tsing Loh coins the term Elderschadenfreude to describe “the secret pleasure of hearing about aging parents that are even more impossible than yours.”

Loh’s 91-year-old father is incontinent, he’s horny, he’s happy, he’s horrendously expensive, and he’s going strong. She wishes he were dead. My parents are dead — reason, Loh quips, for “anti-Elderschadenfreude.” If Elderschadenfreude is pleasure in the misfortunes of those dealing with aged parents, then its antithesis must be envy of those no longer dealing with aged parents. After reading “Daddy Trouble” this morning and spending lunch with my best friend discussing her mother’s intubated, home-cared-for, endless dying, I’m grateful to have stepped off the eldercare treadmill.  But while I don’t envy my friend, I don’t think she envies me either. And Loh acknowledges the paradox that when her maddening father dies, she’ll miss him.

Here’s another decent bet: the odds are good that forty years from now Loh’s daughters will be bitching just as vehemently about her. Elderschadenfreude redux. In her nineties Loh might enjoy the attention the way her father seems to be doing; who knows? His quality of life is pretty damn good, albeit maintained at tremendous cost to his daughter’s family.  If Loh didn’t have to choose between her father’s care and her family’s nest egg, she’d be far less bitter. If the government subsidized caregiving and long-term care insurance, she wouldn’t have to choose.

Loh finds companionship if not comfort in Bittersweet Season, the chronicle of her mother’s decline by Jane Gross, who writes the New York Times’s “The New Old Age” blog. Bolstered by statistics from Gross, Loh describes the “Sisyphean slag heap of woe” that awaits so many as the Baby Boomers enter their seventies. She writes, “Owing to medical advancements, cancer deaths now peak at 65 and kill off just 20% of older Americans, while deaths due to organ failure peak at about 75 and kill off just another 15 percent, so the norm for seniors is becoming a long, drawn-out death after 85 [emphasis added], requiring ever-increasing assistance for such simple daily activities as eating, bathing, and moving.”

Another way to frame these figures is to point out that 65% of Americans over 75 are doing fine. At 88 and 90, my partner’s parents live busy, independent lives, although they drive us crazy and we pray they die instantaneously  (a reasonable possibility given the way Bill, once a B-17 bomber pilot, careens along rural Westchester’s narrow roads). It’s the grimmest, most Elderschadenfreude-inspiring scenarios that grab our attention, while millions of older parents live alone and cope just fine. Of course people require more and more help as the years mount up. That’s the way it goes. Just as living means aging (and adjusting to constraints), aging means living.  

The “norm for seniors” is becoming a long-drawn out life, not a long, drawn-out death.  Disability rates continue to decline. If less of the burden of eldercare fell on individuals, we could celebrate instead of bemoan that remarkable achievement. We could generate a richer narrative of late life, a much-needed alternative to the boring, frightening, single-channel default narrative of physical decay. It would reflect the actual experience of growing older less fearfully and more accurately.

age and happiness

Imagine a bunch of 35 year olds and a bunch of 85 year olds.  Which is happier? The 35-year-olds, right? That’s what each group answers.  But ask each to assess its own well-being and the older people come out ahead. This fact surprises (even me! even though I’ve written about it a lot!) because we’re so deeply conditioned to envision life after youth as decline.  Yet it turns out that “Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks—they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.”

That’s a quote from a recent article in the Economist, which describes the growing branch of economics dedicated to answering “the perennial question: what makes people happy?” Findings show that people are least content in their 40s and early 50s and happiest in late life. This is true around from Australia to Zimbabwe, and reflects emotional as well as circumstantial well-being. In other words the universal life trajectory is not a downward slope but a “U-bend.” That's in the Britspeak of the Economist article, which is subtitled, “Why, beyond middle age, people get happier as they get older.” In the American press, it's generally referred to as the “U-shaped happiness pattern.”

Four main factors (gender, personality, external circumstances and age) seem to contribute to happiness, but not as categorically as you might think. The effect of age is significant, “about half as much, from the nadir of middle age to the elderly peak, as that of unemployment.” Control for cash, employment status and children, and the U-bend persists. How come? One theory is that as death grows closer we get better at living in the moment. Or better at being grateful for what we have. Or simply less ambitious. (The article quotes philosopher William James’s observation, “How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young—or slender.”) Whichever is the case, or which combination, it’s apparent that the source is internal, and inherent to the aging process itself.

20/20 hindsight from older Americans – not just for the young, right?

Somewhere along the way, it becomes painfully obvious that youth is indeed wasted on the young.  “If only we’d known then what we know now,” we muse.  We’d have taken that job overseas, dumped that creep sooner, flossed nightly . . . and things would have turned out better.

That’s the idea behind a new book called 30 Lessons for Living:  practical advice on a bunch of topics from more than 1,000 older Americans based on what they flubbed in the course of their lives — and what they got right. All are participants in the ongoing Cornell Legacy Project, directed by gerontologist Karl Pillemer, who put the book together. “Even though people in their seventies, eighties and beyond experience loss and illness, they actually are happier than younger people are,” Pillemer says, explaining the rationale for the book. “There had to be a way to get that wisdom, and distill it, and show young people what older people know about leading the good life and being happy.”

Obviously the learning curve slows as we age, and habits harden. It may be too late to become a better parent or to chase that dream career. But doesn’t it follow that many insights from late life could benefit anyone with the inclination to make course corrections? A chance at some do-overs, at least in theory, before it’s too late. After all kids don’t listen, while in midlife it’s easier to assess which tips ring true, and which we might actually act upon, perhaps with increasing urgency.

Take the advice about travel, which has always been a priority for me and for my partner; it was on serious trips that we forged a family. “Travel is so rewarding that it should take precedence over other things younger people spend money on.” More to the point, perhaps: “Create a bucket list now and start whittling it down.” That's why I’m going down the Grand Canyon with assorted friends and family for my 60th birthday, while my knees can still handle it.  

Common sense is  anodyne, but I found a lot to chew on at the Legacy Project website, especially in the section about how to grow old.  Most found late life to be far better than they’d anticipated, even those who’d been compelled to move to senior communities, where they found new friends and activities.  Hence the consensus that young people worry way too much about getting old.  Surely this advice is even more compelling for those of us further along the road?

The overarching message? Life is short.  Seize the day. The best part of the project? Watching the videos.  I really liked these people, and  the time with them was a treat.