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The Author Speaks

Interview With Susan Jacoby, Author of 'Never Say Die'

She takes a more critical and skeptical look at old age

Q. You object to the notion that depression in the old is always abnormal and requires treatment. Aren't you failing to distinguish between clinical depression and sadness?

A. I would never for a moment deny that the old can be clinically depressed. What I have seen over the years is that the first thing that health care professionals do when an old person expresses any kind of sadness is offer them pills. It's the easiest, cheapest thing to do. We need to be very careful calling old people depressed just because they won't do things that we want them to do.

Q. Dementia, including Alzheimer's, is an increasingly visible problem. How should we as a society respond?

A. We can hope for a medical miracle. Certainly, putting more money into Alzheimer's — which really means putting it into basic biogenetic research — anything that would significantly delay Alzheimer's disease, would be a great blessing. It's not going to do anything for someone your age or my age. There are some promising avenues of research now, but they are long-term.

Q. What about caring for dementia sufferers in the meantime?

A. Long-term care is something that we don't pay for that every other industrialized country in the Western world does. Here is where the idea of American individualism is very harmful.

Q. As you point out, there is a lot of hype today about longevity research.

A. Maybe we will find that a lot of the diseases of old age all are one disease inherent in the aging process. The question is, could people live forever if you could turn off an aging gene? Maybe. I don't think so.

Q. Do you have any interest in an extended lifespan?

A. Provided that I was of sound mind, and that 90 was the new 50 — sure. Who doesn't want to be immortal if they could be immortal and young forever? Actually, I don't think that I would. One thing I know: Whatever breakthroughs are made in longevity science, they're only going to be available to the rich.

Q. What worries you most as you face old age?

A. Alzheimer's disease. To me, that's not living. And I make no bones about saying it. I believe a functioning mind is what gives life meaning. I don't think I'm really scared of anything else — of course, other than there being absolutely nobody to write for.

Q. What role has AARP played in marketing myths about the new old age?

A. AARP should stop presenting only the exceptions as the norm. You don't need to present 90-year-old skydivers as the norm to lobby for the dignity of old people.

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