December 30, 2019

Never Say Old

As a brief follow up to her important 2011 book, Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, the writer Susan Jacoby published an editorial in the NY Times this past week. 

Provocatively entitled,  “We’re Getting Old, but We’re Not Doing Anything About It,” she points out that the presence of 5 septuagenarian presidential candidates (Biden, Sanders, Warren, Bloomberg, and Trump) falsely encourages the population to think that 75 really is the new 50 and that aging doesn’t bring with it the risk of frailty, dementia, and disability. Jacoby, in her usual incisive way, argues this view is mistaken—and dangerous.

In fact, while many people do remain vigorous well into their seventies, and a smaller but not inconsequential percentage continue to be robust well into their eighties (and an even smaller percentage into their nineties), the risk of developing one or more medical conditions that get in the way of independence and well-being rises steadily with age. The much vaunted “compression of morbidity,” the dream that we will all remain totally intact until precipitously, preferably during sleep, we die, hasn’t quite materialized. Jacoby cites a study reporting that one in seven people who are 65 years old today can expect to experience 5 or more years of disability before they die. Dementia rates are falling—but since the size and proportion of older people is increasing, the absolute number of people with dementia is projected to rise steadily. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are 5.6 million people over 65 with dementia today, there will be 7.8 million in 2025—and 13.8 million in 2050. Frailty remains a major problem: a 2015 population study in the US found that while only 10.7 percent of people age 65-69 were frail, among the 75-79-year-olds the rate was 20.1 percent, and for those aged 85-89, it was 37.9 percent.

So, what are the implications of this reality? Jacoby offers three: provide more support for caregivers; encourage employers to allow vigorous older adults to continue working; and address various medical ethical issues such as physician assisted suicide. This is a good beginning—and about as much as one can reasonably put into a NY Times op-ed—but there are many others.

Here are a few additions: In the arena of housing, we need far more housing that is handicapped accessible. Doorways should be wide enough for wheelchairs, buildings should be on a single level or have elevators. In the domain of urban planning, communities need to be walkable with extensive and accessible public transportation. In terms of medical care, the overriding issue is not care of the dying, but how best to care for the living. We need far more attention to function: to maintaining and fostering basic abilities such as mobility and higher-level abilities such as cooking and shopping. To achieve this end, physicians need to assess function, they need to know how to diagnose frailty, and they need to know how to promote and support function. Physicians also need to determine the old person’s goals of care and to work with patients and family caregivers to develop an approach to treatment that is consistent with those goals.

The new year will begin in just two days. Among our resolutions for the coming year should be a commitment to making America a better place for us as we get old—and I agree with Jacoby that we should abandon the foolish euphemism “older people” and stick with plain “old.” This should be a resolution we actually follow.

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