Susan Jacoby is a proudly contrarian thinker. She tackled popular culture in The Age of American Unreason and religious institutions in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Now, she directs her fire at a new target: our optimism about the benefits of increased longevity. Having turned 65, six months in advance of the leading edge of the baby boom, she writes: "It is past time for a more critical and skeptical look at old age as it really is in America today, especially for the 'old-old' — those in their ninth and tenth decades of life."
Never Say Die is a searing examination of the challenges that this growing, primarily female cohort will face, including high rates of poverty, dementia and loneliness. The book is a politically progressive manifesto that calls for social, rather than individual, solutions to such problems as a lack of financing for home-based care. It is also a cultural attack on our tendency to demand that the oldest among us behave with unrelenting good cheer.
In some ways, Never Say Die is a deeply personal book. Jacoby writes that she is descended from exceptionally long-lived women, including a grandmother who survived until 99, and a mother who is 90 and in assisted living. Jacoby also has endured the loss of a beloved partner, 15 years her senior, who suffered from Alzheimer's and died of cancer. AARP Bulletin talked to Jacoby, who lives in New York, about her ideas.
Q. Give examples of what you call "the myth and marketing of the new old age?"
A. The myth is simply that old age today is going to be very, very different than old age has ever been in the past. And in one sense, that's true: There are many medical tools to deal with many of the inevitable diseases that are related to old age. It's a boomer conceit that every stage of our lives is going to be different from the lives of people who came before us. And I don't see any evidence that old age is any different — particularly when you get into "old-old" age, which demographers consider over 85. I don't think there is a "new old age."
Q. What are the most important misconceptions our society has about growing older?
A. The biggest misconception about being old is that age is just a number: It's a reality and a stage of life. As you move into your 80s and 90s, old age is no picnic. It's characterized by increasing difficulty of all kinds. The longer you live, the more likely you are to wind up life poor. The longer you live, the more likely you are to have dementia.
Q. Your primary concern is with people — overwhelmingly women — in that age range.
A. What's important is that so many more boomers are going to live into their 80s and 90s than their parents did. It's the fastest-growing sector of the over-65 population. If we don't think about old-old age as it really is, there's no incentive to solve these problems.