Old Age. Over The Hill, Down The Other Side But Starting A New Amazing Journey

I’ve been thinking about growing old quite a bit recently. Some may say too late, you’re already there. But funnily enough, I don’t see myself that way. As a child born in the 1950s, I am technically old and certainly middle-aged. But you know what? When it comes to living I say that glass, she is still half full so I give the two-fingered salute to old father time. But how long can I, should I, expect to live? Well, if your name is Ezekiel Emmanuel and you happen to be President Barack Obama’s health advisor, then the answer is 75. That’s how long Emmanuel wants to live, or so he says. He wrote an extremely provocative essay in the Atlantic Monthly, titled: Why I Hope To Die At 75, an argument that society and families and ourselves would be better off if nature takes its course swiftly and promptly.

Emmanuel writes: “Doubtless, death is a loss. It deprives us of experiences and milestones, of time spent with our spouse and children. In short, it deprives us of all the things we value. But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic. By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations. Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy. “

Already I am thinking Ezekiel Emmanuel is, quite frankly, talking through his hat. I mean on what basis is 75 an arbitrary cut off point? But for the sake of a debate let’s humor him. Emmanuel says over recent decades there was an increase in longevity but also a significant downside. That increase was accompanied by an increase in disability. In other words, we’re living longer but becoming more incapacitated. To bolster his argument, Ezekiel cites research from Eileen Crimmins, a researcher at the University of Southern California, who assessed the physical functioning in adults, and analyzed whether people could walk a quarter of a mile; climb 10 stairs; stand or sit for two hours; and stand up, bend, or kneel without using special equipment. The results show that as people get older, there’s a progressive erosion of physical functioning. More importantly, Crimmins found that between 1998 and 2006, the loss of functional mobility in the elderly increased. In 1998, about 28 percent of American men, aged 80 and older had some form of functional limitation; by 2006, that figure was nearly 42 percent. It’s even worse for women. More than half of women aged 80 and older had a mobility issue. Crimmins’s conclusion: There was an “increase in the life expectancy with disease and a decrease in the years without disease.” As people live longer their ability to function with normal mobility gets shorter. According to Emmanuel, health care hasn’t slowed the aging process, it has slowed the dying process. As far as Ezekiel Emmanuel is concerned, old age is just bad news that keeps getting worse. He writes: “ Even if we aren’t demented, our mental functioning deteriorates as we grow older. Age associated declines in mental-processing speed, working and long-term memory, and problem-solving are well established. Conversely, distractibility increases.

“We cannot focus and stay with a project as well as we could when we were young. As we move slower with age, we also think slower. It is not just mental slowing. We literally lose our creativity.” But having argued the point in quite extensive detail, Emmanuel comes to the end of his piece and does the full cop out. He says: “ Seventy-five years is all I want to live. I want to celebrate my life while I am still in my prime. My daughters and dear friends will continue to try to convince me that I am wrong and can live a valuable life much longer. And I retain the right to change my mind and offer a vigorous and reasoned defense of living as long as possible. That, after all, would mean still being creative after 75.”

It’s called having a bet each way. Emmanuel, a bioethicist, says he hopes to be dead by 75, having lived in his words a complete life. He won’t medicate, take a flu injection or even swallow an antibiotic, but then reserves the right to change his mind, which he is perfectly entitled to do. But what is the point of advocating being dead by 75 if you don’t really mean it? And, all of these ideas coming from a senior Obama advisor, implies that he must be trying to influence Government health care policy. But even if he isn’t, Ezekiel Emmanuel, will in all probability, change his mind when he creeps closer to that magic figure of 75, assuming he lives that long. Interestingly, he has identified an important issue. Despite what Emmanuel says, I firmly believe age is a state of mind. And depending on which state, that mind happens to be in, has a large bearing on how well you will fair as you get older. But you are fighting an uphill battle. A fair and humane society should respect an individual at every age. But that can’t be the case when Governments and economists and even the media talk about the problem of old age. An Australian researcher, Doctor Patricia Edgar, has written extensively about the issue of aging. She says American National Institute of Ageing studies show that negative stereotypes about ageing, images of the elderly as “senile”, “frail”, or confused, can become debilitating, self-fulfilling prophecies. “ Seeing or hearing gloomy examples about what it is like to be old can make people walk more slowly, hear and remember less well, and even affect their cardiovascular system, affecting health and longevity,” Edgar says.

She points out the result is hardly surprising. Tell anyone, at any age, they are a burden, with nothing to contribute and they will begin to believe and act accordingly. Here’s something that might surprise. Despite many of the resounding, negative observations, a significant percentage of older Australians and I suspect people from other countries as well, are living, breathing testimonies of how wrong you can be. They are living fulfilling lives , increasing their contribution to the work force. I’m not just talking about my generation of baby boomers who seem to be a unique social experiment. It’s the group directly following the baby boomers, which represents a larger demographic and will create an even larger bulge in the paid labour force. So what is the best way to correct the myths and develop responsible and productive policies that actually benefit older people? According to Patricia Edgar we should start with a new definition of ageing.

When is someone said to be old? Research says life expectancy above 30 is a very modern phenomenon driven by public health measures and falling infant mortality. Life expectancy at birth was 35 in Sweden shortly before 1700; in Italy around 1880; and in Russia around 1910. In Australia today, life expectancy for men who are now 65 is 85 and for women it’s 89. Older people represent the fastest growing demographic in society.

Yet, as Edgar points out we are still mired in the perception that 50 is the beginning of old age. South Australia’s Ageing Plan is based on interviews with Australians over 50. At that age we are entering “the second half of life”, not heading for God’s waiting room.

According to Edgar, by treating this stage as a period of aged obsolescence, we create a non-existent problem and undermine a resource, which could have significant benefits for society. She says in the 1950s, Americans identified adolescents or teenagers as a group distinct from children, with special needs. It also made sense to split the childhood demographic into two distinct groups with children living with their parents for longer, entering the workforce later, marrying later and life expectancy increasing proportionally. Edgar says it’s time to recognise that middle age, like childhood, is now lived in two stages. We’ve evolved to a point where the first stage involves work and the second, activity before old age. We don’t simply stop work, and then die as we did in the early 1900s. Retirement is from the paid work force but it doesn’t mean you also retire from life. Edgar says it’s a time of maturity, broadened by experience. A time for giving something back and finding satisfaction in a range of activities, like volunteering, childcare and mentoring. Contributions, that should be recognised and valued. It’s a generation that might not figure in measuring a country’s GDP, but strong communities can’t exist without them. Patricia Edgar claims the media doesn’t help by frequently getting it wrong in promoting the concept of some kind of intergenerational war. It is a rare for a family not to view the interests of the young as the over-riding concern of parents and grandparents. Income flows from the old to the young more so than the other way around, a fact that is often conveniently ignored. Edgar says it isn’t difficult to see that the attributes of the very old are being dismissed way too early. And given our increased life expectancy, the term “old” should mean someone over 85, not 65 and certainly not 55.

According to Edgar, social, medical and cultural policy needs to catch up with this dramatic change in our life cycle. We should stop talking about retirement and “having a well-deserved rest”. Working until the age of 70, if the jobs are there, and there’s no discrimination in the workforce, makes perfect sense. And the reason for continuing to work doesn’t have to only be as a way of earning an income. It can prevent decline. For too many people, retirement leads to cognitive, emotional and physical obliteration.

Edgar says people living an active life after 55 have much to give. As a society we need to think about redesigning our long life journey. There is a growing body of research suggesting that health and satisfaction post 50 plus, is an opportunity to re-invent ourselves. We have become used to thinking that education is solely for the young. Instead we need to think about education as a life-long process.

According to Edgar, the choice is ours to make. We are experiencing a longevity revolution. And if we have enough will and imagination, it has exciting potential. Yes even for you Ezekiel Emmanuel. And, you should tell your boss in the White House.

Oh My God. Carol Brady Is Having Sex And Enjoying It

Sadly, one of the cornerstones of my so-called misspent childhood, was watching a television show called the Brady Bunch. To the uninitiated, the Brady Bunch was an American situation comedy, based around two families, the wife and three daughters and the husband with three sons and, as the title song goes “they knew it was much more than a hunch, that this group must somehow form a family and that’s the way they all became the Brady Bunch.”

I can’t believe I still remember that. Damn.

It was corny and goofy and lame but somehow endearing. The Brady Bunch were a group of people who portrayed themselves as the almost perfect family, loving towards each other, supportive and helpful, always finding a way out of a tight spot, all the while looked after by a doting housekeeper. It’s not that you ever wanted to be the Brady Bunch but they were a safe pair of hands in the Department of Entertaining Distractions.

The matriarch of the family was Carol Brady, attractive in that homespun kind of way, always cheerful and happy. Played perfectly by actress Florence Henderson. So you can imagine my shock, but certainly not horror, when I read that Carol Brady, gasp, enjoys S-E-X. She sure does, according to a magazine recently published in the United States. Not only does she enjoy sex, Carol Brady, aka Florence Henderson, now aged 80, has a friend with benefits. Henderson told the magazine, Closer, that she has gotten considerably better at sex as she’s got older and that it’s a complete myth that people her age aren’t having sex.

And the shocks, they just keep coming.

Henderson said she had one main sexual partner but that they were not exclusive to each other. “He lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and is a chiropractor,” she said. “I really enjoy his company, but I am sure he sees other people, as I do. “(Sex) keeps getting better. You learn to do things with more experience, intelligence and the ability to choose more wisely,” she said. “I like to date younger men [in their 60s] because they need to keep up with me.”

Oh my God. Squeaky-clean Carol Brady, say it isn’t so? Hah. Too late he cried. She’s already said, it’s not only so, it’s so, so good.

These days Florence Henderson, who incidentally looks great for her age, hosts her own television cooking show in between hosting lovers it seems. But that got me thinking? Should we be disgusted by this revelation? Or should Florence Henderson be applauded for continuing to embrace life and all of the joys that go with it? It doesn’t disgust me but then I’m not far off being old enough to be one of her ‘toy boys’. What a thought? But the reality is age is not much of a barrier when it comes to the elderly having and enjoying intimacy. Some years ago, the first detailed examination of the sexuality of older Americans was published. Although the study relates to older Americans it would apply to older people all over the world. It was a nationally represented survey of 3 thousand Americans, men and women, aged between 57 and 85. It found that half to three quarters of those surveyed, remain sexually active, with a significant proportion engaging in ‘frequent and varied sexual behavior.’ The survey found that sexual problems do increase with age and the rate of sexual activity does fade a little but interest in sex remains high and frequency is stable among the physically able who are still lucky enough to have a willing partner. It also torpedoed one of the great myths that constantly circulates among the younger generation irrespective of what era they live or lived in. “There’s a popular perception that older people aren’t as interested in sex as younger people,” said Stacy Tessler Lindau of the University of Chicago, who led the study, that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. “Our study shows that’s simply not true.”

In fact it found that older people value sexuality as an important part of life. The study paints a portrait for older people, that includes a previously uncharacterized vitality and interest in sexuality and one that has not been fully appreciated. The survey found a close link between sex and health, with healthier people reporting the highest rates of sexual activity. In addition to supporting the well-known idea that illness can interfere with a sex life, the survey suggests that a healthy sex life may itself help keep people vibrant. “Individuals who remain sexually active gain the benefit of the physical exercise that comes with sex,” Lindau said. “It’s also possible the hormones — the endorphins released by orgasms — give a general sense of well-being that could be beneficial. The psychological benefits of being loved and cared for may also trickle over to physical health.”

What makes this kind of study so unique and different is the fact that despite the intense focus on sex in popular culture, political sensitivities have severely limited funding for reliable, detailed studies of sexual activity among Americans of any age. Smaller, more limited studies have provided glimpses into the sex lives of the elderly, but no one had previously attempted an in-depth, nationally representative survey among this rapidly growing segment of the population. “We just don’t know very much about sexuality in the later years,” said Robert N. Butler, president of the International Longevity Center in New York, a nonprofit think tank. “There’s been a tremendous amount of resistance to such studies. That’s what makes this so terrific.”

In their the study, researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with a randomly selected sample of 3,005 Americans from July 2005 to March 2006. “We found people to be grateful to have an opportunity to discuss these issues,” said Lindau, noting that researchers achieved an unusually high 75 percent response rate from those they approached. “The topics we were asking about resonated with people. Many said they had never had a chance to talk to anyone about these issues, not even a spouse or their physicians.” About 28 percent of men and about 14 percent of women said sex was very important, and about three-quarters of those with partners reported being sexually active, which is about equivalent to what previous research had found for people in their 40s and 50s. Being sexually active was defined as having had mutual voluntary sexual contact with another person within the past 12 months. “Our findings indicate that when it comes to sexual activity, older people are really just younger people later in life,” Lindau said.

So true. So true.

“There’s no reason to believe they give up the basic human desire for love and intimacy and the kind of pleasure that comes from intimate relationships,” Lindua said.

As you might expect, the proportion of those having sex did decline somewhat with age. By ages 75 to 85, it was down to 39 percent of men and 17 percent of women. Among those who remained sexually active, frequency also fell with age. But even among the oldest age group, 54 percent of those who were still sexually active, reported having sex at least two to three times per month and 23 percent reported having sex once a week or more. “This just shows that the light doesn’t go out. The flame doesn’t go out,” said Todd P. Semla, president of the American Geriatrics Society.

Ok. This is a reader warning, We’re about to get a bit grubby.

The most common sexual activity was vaginal intercourse. But the survey found a significant proportion of respondents reported engaging in oral sex, both giving and receiving, as well as masturbation. Mirroring their younger counterparts, elderly men reported more sexual activity than women, but researchers said that was largely because women live longer than men, giving the surviving men more opportunities to have sex than women. (Go you good thing). “This doesn’t necessarily mean that women aren’t necessarily interested in intimacy and sexuality,” Lindau said. “A substantial number of women say the reason they are not having sex is they don’t have a partner.”

Among those who remained sexually active, nearly half reported at least one sexual problem. Forty three percent of women reported a lack of sexual desire, 39 percent of women reported vaginal dryness, and 37 percent of men reported problems achieving an erection.But, given the availability of new medical treatments such as Viagra, the findings did indicate that older people would benefit from more frank and open discussions about sex with their doctors. “This should increase awareness among physicians to pay more attention to this,” said John E. Morley, Director of Geriatrics at St. Louis University. “This is extraordinarily important, and we need to pay more attention to it.”

My word it is. If you are still not convinced, just ask Carol Brady.