Monday, July 30, 2012

Going the way of all flesh

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, aging

I phoned my father on his sixtieth birthday and asked, "What is it like?" He said, "I feel a lot like I did when I was twenty, but everything takes longer." Five years ago, I passed that milestone myself, and I have to agree. Not much has changed, yet everything has changed. And, nearly everything does indeed take longer. I expect to have some time yet for things to take even longer. Dad is still ticking along at age 90.

Though Mom passed away at 81, she had the potential for a longer life, had she not fallen afoul of a deadly cancer. As it happened, she also fell afoul of creeping dementia, starting before age 60, so when it came, her death from cancer was counted a blessing. Which side of the family will I be more like? I've already had cancer, and I show no signs of dementia (you reading this can judge for yourselves – be kind!), so perhaps I have 20-30 years to go. I hope they are fruitful years.

I live by my wits, and in particular I need a robust memory to thrive in the knowledge management business. If I start "losing it", I won't last long. But I have had colleagues who retired at 58 and 60, while others retired at 75 or even older, and I have a valued colleague who is 78 (I think; he is a bit cagey about it). This last fellow retired, then came back as a consultant. I figure, as long as the work is fun and interesting, having that paycheck is also lots of fun, so why not keep going? My father retired at 75.

Professor William Ian Miller may be one of those who is ready for retirement closer to his sixties than his seventies or later. The title of his book says it all: Losing It: In Which an Aging Professor Laments His Shrinking Brain, Which He Flatters Himself Formerly Did Him Noble Service – A Plaint, Tragi-comical, Historical, Vengeful, Sometimes Satirical and Thankful in Six Parts, if His Memory Does Yet Serve. Ka-boing! He gets the award for longest title!! Dr. Miller is 65, probably no more than a month or two older than I am, and his writing indicates he is still in possession of most of his wits. However, upon introspection, he feels he has lost a lot. One of the six parts of the book is titled "Complaining", but he doesn't confine his own complaining to that section. By the finish, I had to say, with Shakespeare, "Methinks thou protesteth too much", to slightly misquote Gertrude in Hamlet, Act III.

However, the book is not entirely a complaint. I would not have read through 265 pages of pure kvetching. It is, rather, a very entertaining survey of old age, its ills, and the ways a range of societies (mostly Norse) have treated the old through history. The good professor studies a cluster of ancient literature genres centered on the Icelandic Eddas and Norse epic poetry in general. Many of his illustrations derive from these. Thus, he dwells for quite a spell upon the characters in Egil's Saga: Egil, his son Skallagrim and grandson Kveld-Ulf. Each grew old in turn during the time covered by the saga, and they had quite similar personalities. In particular, in their old age, they each responded to grief by taking to bed and staying there for long periods. This is a common ploy of those who think they are old enough to get away with it. However, in one instance, the old codger's son shames him into arising and taking the field in vengeance, where he dies, though only after killing a dozen or so enemies. Perhaps old Icelanders are made of sterner stuff.

Isn't that how we all hope we can go out, in a blaze of glory? Well, maybe some of us. I confess to being more cowardly than that, and hoping my heart just quietly stops beating some night while I lie sleeping. In particular, with my family history, I have zero risk of death by heart attack or stroke, and a recent Heart Cam scan (my doctor insisted) shows my heart is as clean as a healthy teenager's. So I expect, sooner or later, another bout with cancer, and that's typically a rather painful way to go. Maybe if I am lucky, something critical will just wear out first. I'd rather wink out than blaze out.

Before getting to complaining, the author discusses the horror of finding yourself old, to the point of not easily recognizing your face in a mirror. I still have my high school picture. I showed it to some college students recently, because one asked about it. A girl blurted out, "Oh, you used to be so handsome!" Clearly, things have changed. I really don't look like I did then, though I really can recognize myself in recent pictures or mirror views. Looking at my father, I can see about how I'll look in 25 years, God willing. And by the way, Dr. Miller writes about recently visiting his mother, aged 89, so he probably has 20-25 years to go himself. Get used to it, Bill!

The shortest section of the book is about "Wisdom", and the various rather unfounded myths about getting older and wiser. Older and more stubborn is more like it. I rather like what Elihu said to Job and his "friends" (as if you could have such good enemies): "I said, 'Let age speak, and let the multitude of years make wisdom known.' But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives them understanding. It is not the great who are wise, nor the old who understand justice." (Job 32:7-9) A succinct proverb says it all, "There is no fool like an old fool".

So the fourth section is about how we might wrap things up, and is titled "Retirement, Revenge, and Taking it With You". The retirement picture, at least in the West, is where the rubber really meets the road. Having lots of kids was the traditional retirement plan; you just hoped at least one would have sufficient gratitude to take care of you when you got feeble. The condition of one Neandertal skeleton, of a man who was aged at the time of death, but was apparently being fed and cared for by someone, shows that the plan can work, though cases abound of the young giving the very old a bit of help to embark on "the next journey". Now we have pensions and IRA's and so forth.

We need them! In 1900, 4% of Americans were 65 or older, and the average retiree lived on about five more years. By 1936, when Social Security was enacted, those 65+ amounted to 5%. By 2000, it became 12.5%, and is expected to hit about 16% in eight more years (2020, when I'll be 73). Living on a fixed income these days is just a death sentence by inflation. Costs go up, and old folks begin to starve. Some people put their aged relatives in a nursing home. Nursing home neglect is becoming an epidemic, and is part of a larger picture of "the home" just being another means of "helping" someone reach the final exit sooner. Particularly if the aged person in question has a substantial IRA or other wealth. Is it any wonder some oldsters get vengeful, and even plan how to "take it with them", if only by spending down their assets. Can you say "Senior Citizen Cruise"? In Egil's Saga, old Egil gets out of bed long enough to take a couple of chests of silver to a bog, where he throws them in, with the help of two slaves. He is still strong enough to kill the slaves so they can't be asked which bog.

The section titled "Sentiments" made more sense to me. My wife finds it a bit amusing how easily I shed a tear. It gets easier as the years go by. It is getting risky to invite me to a wedding or funeral. I'll be the one trying to weep silently, and failing. Was Dylan Thomas's father a sentimental type, that the son wrote "Rage, rage against the dying of the light"? What is the use of all that rage? The stress will just kick off your ticker that much sooner. The sixth section explores this a little more. But I have to remark on another item that I found quite bracing.

Throughout the book, the author disparages "Positive Psychology" and its Pollyanna-ish tendencies. I agree with him. Life can be tough, and it does no good to over-optimize, or to over-pessimize about it. If some think the very old are happier than others, there are several explanations. One is that happier folks might live longer. Another is that "ignorance is bliss" and that an increasing number of the very old are too demented to know if they are sad or not. I suspect some of it is just the error of averaging apples with oranges with bananas with orangutans. Anyway, I wonder how many old folks simply lied about how happy they were. I just got interrupted by a phone call, one of those automated political surveys. I hung up on it. If I had taken it, I would probably have lied, because I usually do, on purpose. Think about that, pundits out there with your surveys and smoke-and-mirrors predictions!

I was able once to recalculate the statistics from an article that reported on a study of IQ and aging. The authors claimed that IQ dropped with age after 40 or so. But if you recast the numbers so that you count back from the age at death, IQ actually rose until a final decline that typically began about five years before death. So if your "natural death" is going to come at age 80, you can expect to get smarter until age 75. Maybe there is something to this wisdom of age bit!

How does that square with the fact that brain scans show brains shrinking with age? Size isn't everything. Einstein's brain has been preserved, and its volume is 1,230 cc. The average 76-year-old man's brain is about 1,250 cc. The "normal" range for middle aged men is 1,050-1,450 cc. Einstein worked on the "grand unified theory" right up to the end.

So, like many, I may occasionally find a word that I ought to know, on the tip of my tongue, but glued there so I can't get it out; I may mislay my keys (though I have strict habits to forestall this); I never could put a name to a face until I'd been with someone three or four times, so that's not a consideration; I have different eating habits than I used to; the way my wife and I relate to one another has changed; the way my brothers and father and I relate to one another has also changed; and I think I am less likely to try to intimidate my younger colleagues with superior knowledge – I'd rather collaborate on a more equal basis than I used to.

I don't know if Dr. Miller is really "losing it", any more than I am. If we are, I think there is still a very great much left to lose. There are also a few things to gain. For example, I can play a greater variety of parts now: curmudgeon when it suits me, or kindly grandfatherly ball of fluff when that is better. And so forth. Back to lying on surveys: the old become better actors. Another reason to watch out!

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