Monday, December 22, 2008

New Aging

In her book Aging, the Health-Care Challenge, Carole Bernstein Lewis notes that “old age is a new concept and a relatively new phenomenon.” She quotes Leonard Hayflick as saying of aging that it is “…a process for which evolution never prepared us. One might conclude,” he adds, “that aging is an artifact of civilization.”

Our prehistoric ancestors were lucky to live to 30. Only in the past few centuries has the allotted time for a reasonable lifespan been extended to the familiar three-score and ten. Living beyond 70 into one’s eighties or nineties is new, thanks in large part to public health improvements resulting from increased food production, sewage treatment, water purification, vaccination, and antibiotics.

But along with these improvements in age extension, a host of new problems has arisen. We need to remember that a tribe taking care of three elderly people is different from three young people taking care of an elderly tribe. This extends beyond the financial burden placed on the children and grandchildren of aging baby boomers, ranging from home-care expenses to medical emergencies and future Medicare and Social Security obligations. It also extends into emotional and ethical territory, where questions about eldercare inevitably lead.

We need new ideas to begin to deal with this new phenomenon. We need to ask new questions. Seek new answers. Clarify new values. Experts may propose and debate the issues, but we all are living in this new reality and we all need to join the discussion. We need to confront the hard realities of resource production, availability and allocation. We need to come to a consensus about values. How much do we value the elderly?
How will we provide the resources—medical, financial, physical, emotional, psychological—to care for a large population of people living into their nineties?

I have found that sharing stories of actual experiences helps create programs that work. We need to confront the hard realities, clarify our values, and create solutions that work. Share your stories!

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