Thursday, February 16, 2012

Susan Jacoby - Mad as Hell and Not Having It!

I first met Susan Jacoby through Bill Moyers' show on PBS.
He had a penchant for in-depth interviews with brilliant women like Ms. Jacoby and another one of my favorite straight talkers, Kathleen Hall Jamieson. His decision to retire has left a deep hole in quality television programming, though I've heard rumors that he may return.

Susan Jacoby is an eclectic writer whose essays and non-fiction have appeared in every major publication in the country. An avowed atheist, she received international kudos for her 2004 book about the myth of our country's supposed Christian foundation, Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism. She must be apoplectic over the rhetoric coming from our current crop of Republican candidates! While Gingrich can be written off as simply crazy, Santorum should truly be terrifying to any thinking woman.

Being a "baby boomer" seems to be a dirty word lately, at least as we are differentiated from my parents' "greatest generation," but talk of aging, retirement, health issues, and quality of life are weighing heavily on my mind as I consider the next phase of my life. Thus, when I saw that I could download Ms. Jacoby's latest eye-opening look at the "new old age," I grabbed it for the ipod. Such an irony that I listen as I walk my three mile route knowing full well that all that exercise will not protect me from the ravages of time and genetic inheritance!

Never Say Die, The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age will not be an easy book to swallow for those of my contemporaries who really believe that vigorous exercise, good nutrition, and crossword puzzles will keep them vibrant into their nineties and beyond. Not so, say the studies. They don't hurt of course, and they make us feel good, you know, all those burgeoning endorphins, but if one falls and breaks a hip, his quality of life will rapidly decline no matter how many fruits and vegetables he's ingested!

Ms. Jacoby is justifiably angry at the massive media conspiracy, along with AARP and the drug companies that blast the airwaves, magazines and newspapers with pictures of beautiful senior citizens, perfectly coiffed, healthily tanned (an oxymoron?), hefting their clubs and rackets, sipping champagne, and looking like they're having the times of their lives. She mentions study after study that prove out the obviously huge disparity between health care options for the wealthy vs. for the rest of us. Women, in particular, she notes, will live longer but with decreasing assets and many, many, will live out their days in abject poverty.

Though Ms. Jacoby gives huge praise to President Obama's health care initiative, discusses the efficacy of stem cell research, and is politically left of center, she doesn't spare compliments for those on the right who have stepped up to increase awareness of diseases that devastate families from all ends of the spectrum. All the money and education in the world will not spare some of us the heartbreak of Alzheimer's disease and she thanks Nancy Reagan for bringing this disease into the forefront of our psyches.

On a personal note, Ms. Jacoby speaks eloquently of her life partner, a brilliant, witty wordsmith who, as he succumbed to this disease, found himself unable to express even the simplest emotion. She talks too, of the enormous strain of caregiving, the ferocious cost of long term care insurance, and the injustice of losing one's assets to nursing care.

No, this book is not a cheerful read, but I think that it's necessary for those of us in what she refers to as "young old age," to get our heads out of the sand and recognize the facts. Like another one of my favorite angry women, Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Jacoby splashes a healthy dose of cold water on the myths being perpetuated by the media, the exhorbitant amounts of money being spent to stave off the aging process, and the skewed results of many long-term drug trials that imbue families with false expectations. (just read about aricept)

There are many lessons one can take away from Never Say Die but the simplest and the oldest is one of pure common sense. Live each day as if it's your last. One day it will be.

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