Sunday, April 15, 2007

Putting old on hold.........

When I first went to the US 35 years ago, there was one thing that used to amaze me no end. Say, you were visiting some old folks, and the lady of the house had gone out for lunch or something. It was usual for the gentleman to say that the "girls" were out at lunch, and expected back shortly. The first time that happened, the sound of their garage door closing heralded the arrival of the "girls", and I half expected young , granddaughter types to appear on the scene. The arrival of two ladies in their 80's, with wisps of silver hair, full makeup, matching shoes and purses, fancy brooches et al, had me completely speechless.

Seniors and Superseniors. And I am not talking about outstanding performers in college.

There is a new category of folks getting defined these days. Thanks to excellent medicine, good exercise habits, careful diet control, and most important, a permanent learning curiosity, today, more and more people remain fitter well into their mid 80's.

There is an entire generation of folks, whose children are now , what are classified as senior citizens.

In a recent talk at the St Louis meeting of the Ameriacn Association for the advancement of Science , in February 2007, Prof S. Tuljapurkar Of Stanford, spoke about the economic and demographic effects of the anti aging therapies that are currently in use. Between 2010 and 2030, people's life expectancy is supposed to increase by 20 years, with folks living into their middle eighties, routinely. It turns out that what the nations economic czars are basically worried about , is the ratio of the retired population, to the working population. And it is estimated, that consequent to adoption of various kinds anti aging therapies and medications, this ratio is lilely to quadruple by 2035.

That has a , if I might use the word, a deadly bearing on Social Security and Medicare policies in the US.

Concentrated usage of certain therapies and usage of certain medications predominantly by first world countries, would have a telling effect on prices of medications, set by pharmaceutical companies, hell bent on profits. That doesnt bode very well for a world where other countries exist, , where the root cause of all strife, poverty, lack of progress is almost, always, money, and what you can buy or not buy with it.

And today, the policy seems to be to indulge in militant and /or military interactions, to satisfy our national craze for overconsumption, of many things, predominantly oil. The same goes for the obsession with never looking your age. The pharrma companies literally milk you dry, and you ask for more, and outlandish expenditures becomes the norm, blinding us to the real situation on the ground.

Fiscal scenarios apart, it is educative to visuaise what would happen in a world of superseniors propped up by the pharmceutical Gods.

Imagine a family getting together for Thanksgiving. The family patriarch and matriarch , (terms you would have laughed at ) very much on the scene, trying to orgainse a table for 55 people. Their 4 children , 2 of them senior citizens themselves, driving in from about 100 miles away. Their children, some working with big companies, some in business and some in academia , trying to make this trip in a combination of air/train/automobile systems. And their assorted off spring ranging from elementary school to college, making, what they think of as a mandatory family trip for the year, never to be missed, no matter what. Someone special has been employed to cook the meal, the varieties of liquid refreshments boggle the mind, given the alcohol, sugar, lactose, and celiac restrictions currently in effect across the family. The family ranges from great grandpa at 95 to the youngest third grader, who thinks figuring out everyone in the group, is the worst quiz he ever faced.

Half way through the meal, someone will fall asleep at the table; probably the oldest and/or the youngest. Someone's shaking hand, trying to pick up a glass on their own will probably spill something on someone. Someone else will shake their head. Great Grandma, overcome by the excitement will fall asleep in the living room listening to her granddaugter's account of her trip to Bangladesh to study the rise in ocean levels and sinking of land due to Global warming there. A couple of Grandpa's will cross each other making repeated trips to the bathroom; its so difficult these days , isnt it ?

The women, discussing the latest mammograms of the eldest; shaking their heads at the inevitable waiting list for getting ordibnary diagnostic procedures in hospitals; and the topic will inevitably veer around to how all this outsourcing of medical diagnostic reporting work to third world countries, is forcing folks to deal with fake sounding Bills and Carolyns who still spell "color" with a u after the second o, and pronounce the letter Z as "zed"....

What has this miraculous anti aging medicine given us ? Beauty ? May be . Mobility ? Maybe. But Mobility was never an issue in the US. Comfort ? Physically, maybe. Alertness ? Sometimes . Better Healing ? Certainly.

Peace of mind ? I dont know.

When we say anti aging therapies and medications succeed, we are only talking about the physical aspects. The immediately visible aspects.

Not withstanding the fact that pharmaceutical companies, being those who are most interested in marketing these antiaging tricks, treat the body as a physical engine, it is necessary for us to keep in mind, that there is a mental aspect to it all; there is something called "mind and body", and everything good that happens to the body immensely depends on how happy and optimistic the mind can be.

The social system, with its obsession with individual independence and privacy, makes it difficult for seniors today to visualise a life with their children and grandchildren , together. One or the other thinks its a burden. Everyone is obsessed about what the insurance company will pay for and and what it wont pay for. Seniors have been reduced to being thought about as an expense.

Think of an entire extra generation of folks above 80, living into thei midnineties, maybe working till their mid eighties. Spruced up and spritely, not missing a single dose of their Omega 3- fish oil and Coenzyme Q 10 , Botoxed faces gleaming in the sun, their cars with special click buttons to aid semi arthritic trigger thumbs cope with doors and trunk openings, driving into their senior communty house, in a car with a GPS that they dont really use as they think its a bit complicated.

And they reach their suites/rooms, rest in their armchair, (with all the embedded call buttons on the arm rest, with a special hot link to the main office), and wish they werent home. Its lonely. It worries them that something may happen and there may be no family around them, no child to gaze at and pour out your best wishes to, as you get that sinking feeling. . All those stem cell therapies, electrical stimulation of brains, and what have you, cannot hide the fact that this body is now an old machine; the forgetfullness has increased; sometimes they remember things from their childhood, and its as if scenes flash in front of their eyes. Old episodes from their younger days come to life. You try to get up from the armchair in that dream about your youth, only to realise that bone densities have changed, and you need help. And your spouse cant help you either. She has fallen asleep with the coffee getting cold. You just wish you had your family around you....

This entire generation of superseniors as created by these anti aging miraculous medications and procedures, will be basically worthless unless acompanied by a hard look at the existing social family systems. Extended family systems. That help preserve the mental peace and sanity of an old person now in the evening of their life.

Life as we know it in the US cannot and should not be dictated by fiscal and monetary issues. Insurance should not decide whether a parent lives or dies.

It has often been instructive to study various populations in China, Mongolia, Russia, and various Asian destinations, where people merrily live well into their 100's, with their own hair (uncolored, untreated), their own teeth , and whats most important, their own self confidence.

Turns out that these folks dont make a special effort to imbibe all kinds of , so called magic foods, hitherto unheard of in the west. They have strong social family systems, eat local traditional food, the local traditional way, enjoy their drinks, are probably consciously unaware of things like cholesterol etc, but unconsciously probably eat all the correct foods over their lifetimes, in consonance with their physical surroundings, the local flora and fauna, and the local water.

Sicknesses are not considered calamities; they are events that are ordained to rest your body , maybe overstrained by some indiscriminate imbibing of stuff. Food itself can be used as medication, and that knowledge is constantly available in the family, updated and passed on to the newer generations. Tolerance for views of those different in age and attitude, comes with having close contact with all members of your family. Folks in the family chipping in , emotionally, during the bad times afflicting any member is a routine affair, and nobody glamourises it.

Various stages of ones life are defined with various functions. The Indian Scriptures, define , in addition to birth, childhood, adoloscence, marriage, a state called "house holding". Thats when you are a householder. You have children, support a family, slpervise the growing up and chanelling of the childrens energies. The children grow up , set up their own families. The Sriptures , at this point , define a way of life , which when loosely translated, means "retiring peacefully into the woods". The operative word here being "peacefully".

In these days of Global Warming and Inconvenient Truths, woods may be difficult to find. But many have interpreted this to mean that one now provides the family a virtual green area, where elders, having completed their family responsibilities, now help with the grandchildrens bringing up. Ambitions at the age on 70 are quietly ignored; occasioanlly an indulgent son or daughter urging the grandparent to go ahead and try something new is then a great pleasure.

These ways of life , may not be smart in a medicated world. But it is a way of life, tried and tested over a number of centuries, where the mind is given as much, if not more importance than just the physical body. Life has to be lived in balance.

Stress doesnt get reduced by defining it, or fiddling around with receptors in the brain.

If at the end of the day, we can honor these superseniors in our family, by giving them our time, place, care, dedication , and of course, occasionally, other resources like money, we would have earned the right to live well into a comfortable, happy, cared for (by family) old age ourselves.

What goes around often comes around. Life is hardly ever linear. Cyclic, more likely.

And that is why, although statistics says that we will have folks merrily working into their late eighties, causing all kinds of economic, congressional, presidential, fiscal, pharnaceutical, and other crises, I firmly believe, that there will be social family system upheavals that will force us to examine the existing set ups, leading to fairly strong changes, a reassessment of what is good, essential medicine and what is not, and the price that we pay for it.

In the meanwhile , maybe I can tell you about a friend, a lady who is 90, who disdainfully ignores all these physical antiaging therapies, teaches mentally challenged children a few days each week, reads to people at an "old" age home 2 afternoons a week, volunteers at the local library on the remaining few days, and says that what keeps her fit is all the gardening she does daily in the wonderful Northern California weather.

And if this is not enough, she is off with 3 other friends the same age as her, on a trip to Africa to watch the animals, flora and fauna.

Maybe she can teach the pharma companies a thing or two about aging, or should I say, non-aging ?.....

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