One of the nice “keep up the good work” responses to my mass email last week came from my friend Robin. Her note went on to say that, “Even my mom, who just died at 95, wasn't an ‘old lady.’ Up until the last few days she really fought like a tiger . . . until her body just gave out. She simply died of old age.” She had lived with debilitating arthritis that set in in her late 40s, and “found a lot of meaning knitting baby items endlessly for the City of Hope and other charities.” Female, in her ninth decade, yet not an old lady?
Questions I'm asking
As questions come up, here's where I write them down
Disability rights activist Simi Linton’s memoir, My Body Politic, shook up my thinking on topics ranging from sex to suicide, and got me comparing ableism and ageism. We act as though old people aren't disabled and disabled people never grow old, despite the fact that one third of disabled Americans are sixty-five or older, and that the same medical advances that have swelled the number of people with disabilities are keeping more and more of the rest of us alive long enough to join their ranks.
In October 2010, demographer Philip Longman warned of a “’gray tsunami’ sweeping the planet." The phrase summons a frankly terrifying vision of a giant wave of old people looming on the horizon, poised to drain the public coffers, swamp the healthcare system, and suck the wealth of future generations out to sea. Journalists jumped on it, and “gray tsunami” has since become widely adopted shorthand for the socioeconomic threat posed by an aging population.
As the Affordable Care Act rolls out and some healthcare costs spike, conservatives have a scapegoat and an unrelenting message: old people are responsible for rising costs and will not pay their share. It’s an all-too-familiar alarmist forecast: a “gray tsunami” of greedy, needy olders will drain the public coffers and consign the next generations to indentured servitude.
In a New York Times op-ed titled “On Dying After Your Time”, prominent bioethicist Daniel Callahan concludes that we should help young people become old, but that when it comes to the old “our duty may be just the reverse: to let death have its day.” It provoked these rebuttals from me and from my colleague Elizabeth Schneewind:
That offending phrase, and offend it did, appeared in a group email, the group being a bunch of college classmates who pass around photos of get-togethers and nostalgia-based music recommendations. The context was a boating foray in which food, fun, and alcohol were dispensed, the latter “not like gin and juice at DKE but as fun as we 60+ers could manage.”
The "assisted suicide" lines used to be drawn more sharply for me. After all, I had in-the-trenches experience. My mother was a charter member of the Hemlock Society, the first national “right-to-die” organization.