Life Goes On, and On …
By JAMES ATLAS
Published: December 17, 2011
A FRIEND calls from her car: “I’m on my way to Cape Cod to scatter my mother’s ashes in the bay, her favorite place.” Another, encountered on the street, mournfully reports that he’s just “planted” his mother. A third e-mails news of her mother’s death with a haunting phrase: “the sledgehammer of fatality.” It feels strange. Why are so many of our mothers dying all at once?
As an actuarial phenomenon, the reason isn’t hard to grasp. My friends are in their 60s now, some creeping up on 70; their mothers are in their 80s or 90s. Ray Kurzweil, the author of “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” believes that we’re close to unlocking the key to immortality. Perhaps within this century, he prophesies, “software-based humans” will be able to survive indefinitely on the Web, “projecting bodies whenever they need or want them, including virtual bodies in diverse realms of virtual reality.” Neat, huh? But for now, it’s pretty much dust to dust, the way it’s always been — mothers included. (Most of our fathers are long gone, alas. Women live longer than men.)
It’s the ones who aren’t dead who should baffle us. My own mother, for instance, still goes to the Boston Symphony and attends a weekly current events class at Brookhaven, her “lifecare living” center (can’t we find a less technocratic word?) near Boston. She writes poems in iambic pentameter for every occasion. At 94, she’s hardly anomalous: there are plenty of nonagenarians at Brookhaven. Ninety is the new old age. As Dr. Muriel Gillick, a specialist in geriatrics and palliative care at Harvard Medical School, says, “If you’ve made it to 85 then you have a reasonable chance of making it to 90.” That number has nearly tripled in the last 30 years. And if you get that far… it’s been estimated that there will be eight million centenarians by 2050.
It won’t end there. Scientists are closing in on the mechanism of what are called “senescent cells,” which cause the tissue deterioration responsible for aging. Studies of mice suggest that targeting these cells can slow down the process. “Every component of cells gets damaged with age,” Leonard Guarente, a biology professor at M.I.T., explained to me. “It’s like an old car. You have to repair it.” We’re not talking about immortality, Professor Guarente cautions. Biotechnology has its limits. “We’re just extending the trend.” Extending the trend? I can hear it now: 110 is the new 100.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? On the debit side, there’s the … debit. The old-age safety net is already frayed. According to some estimates, Social Security benefits will run out by 2037; Medicare insurance is guaranteed only through 2024. These projected shortfalls are in part the unintended consequence of the American health fetish. The ad executives in “Mad Men” firing up Lucky Strikes and dosing themselves with Canadian Club didn’t have to worry. They’d be dead long before it was time to collect.
Then there’s the question of whether reaching 5 score and 10 is worth it — the quality-of-life question. Who wants to end up — as Jaques intones in “As You Like It” — “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”? You may live to be as old as Methuselah, who lasted 969 years, but chances are you’ll feel it.
Worse — it’s no longer a rare event — you can outlive your children. Reading the obituary of Christopher Ma, a Washington Post executive who had been a college classmate of mine, I was especially sad to see that Chris was survived by his wife, a daughter, a son, a brother, two sisters and “his mother, Margaret Ma of Menlo Park, Calif.” Can anything more tragic befall a parent than to be predeceased by a child?
These are the perils old people suffer. What about us, the boomers, now ourselves elderly children? One challenge my entitled generation faces is that many of our long-lived parents are running through their retirement money, which leaves the burden of supporting them to us. (To their credit, it’s a burden that often bothers our parents, too.) And the cost of end-stage health care is huge — a giant portion of all medical expenses in this country are incurred in the last months of life. Meanwhile, our prospects of retirement recede on the horizon.
Also, elder care is stressful and time consuming. The broken hips, the trips to the E.R., the bill paying and insurance paperwork demand patience. A paper titled “Personality Traits of Centenarians’ Offspring” suggests this cohort scores high marks “extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.” But even the well-adjusted find looking after old parents tough.
In the mid-’80s, when the idea of the “sandwich generation” was born — boomers saddled with the care of aging parents while raising their own children — it seemed like a problem we would eventually outgrow. Twenty-five years later, we’re still sandwiched, and some of those caught in the middle feel the squeeze.
So what’s the good part? Time spent with an elderly parent can offer an opportunity for the resolution of “unfinished business,” a chance to indulge in last-act candor. A college classmate writes in our 40th-reunion book of ministering to her chronically ill mother and being “moved by how the twists and turns of complicated health care have deepened our relationship.” I hear a lot about late-in-life bonding between parent and child.
My mother needs a minor operation. “I’ve outlasted my time,” she says as she’s wheeled into surgery. “Anyway, you’re too old to have a mother.” Thanks, Ma. What about Rupert Murdoch? His mother is 102. Also, if I’m too old to have a mother, why do I still feel like a child?
Two weeks later, Mom comes to Vermont to recuperate. My father, who died a decade ago at 87, is buried in the field behind our house (hope this is legal). His gravestone reads “Donald Herman Atlas 1913-2001,” and it has an epitaph from his favorite poet, T. S. Eliot, carved in italics: “I grow old … I grow old …/ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” Mom likes to visit him there. Standing over Dad’s grave, she carries on a dialogue of one. “I thought I’d have joined you by now, Donny, but I’m a tough old bird.” As she heads back up to the house, she turns and waves. “À bientôt.” See you soon.
Not so fast, Mom. I still have issues.
James Atlas is the author of “My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale.”