March 26, 2011

CANADA: Forgetting about needs of seniors is getting old

WINNIPEG, Manitoba / Winnipeg Free Press / Columnists / March 26, 2011

By Gordon Sinclair Jr.

I had a question for the three men seated with me over lunch this week.

A personally probing, end-of-life question.
"How would you like to die?"

The three men were in different stages of life; late 20s, early 40s and early 60s. But, like most of us, they had all considered the question even before I asked.

The young man's answer made me smile, even though he delivered it straight-faced.

Skydiving, he said.

When it was the middle-aged man's turn, his answer momentarily took me aback. He explained he had already experienced clinical death -- after being stabbed in the eye -- so he knew how he wanted to go the second time.


But the response that really surprised me came from the oldest of the three. His, as it turned out, was the one most worth waiting for.

-- -- --

Of course, there was something that prompted my question. More than one something, actually.

Earlier that morning, I'd been listening to The Bob Edwards Show on XM Public Radio.

The guest was American journalist and societal contrarian Susan Jacoby, who was talking about her latest book, Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age.

Jacoby's title reference to the new old age isn't so much about how we're living healthier and longer than ever, which most North Americans are, and particularly Canadians.

Instead, in Jacoby's view, the new old age is more about what the snake-oil hucksters of the health and beauty industries are trying to sell the boomers as they enter their retirement years.

"That we are all going to be skydiving centenarians," is the way Jacoby explained that to one interviewer. "That we are going to get older, but not actually old."

The "90 is the new 50" mantra exemplifies the myth Jacoby refers to as a subtler form of ageism because it represents a suggestion getting to be old is OK.

As long as you don't have any of the typical problems of the "old-old age," which is how doctors and sociologists refer to the those who reach their late 80s and 90s.

The inevitable problems that no amount of exercise, no number of hip-replacement surgeries and no known potion can stop or cure.

Arguably, the most feared of these realities is Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, which will afflict nearly half of Canadians who live beyond 85.

But there's another aspect of aging Jacoby suggests the marketers of the mythical golden-olden years would have us ignore.


The poverty that comes with outliving pensions and life savings that shrink even faster than aging bodies. The poverty problem applies particularly to women who tend to outlive husbands. In fact, it was a coincidental call from an impoverished widow in her 80s that helped prompt my lunch-hour question.

The woman is a friend and she had called to say she's packing to leave her apartment and move into a subsidized seniors complex because she can no longer afford the rent.

More specifically, she had phoned to ask if I could help her cancel her subscription to the Globe and Mail.

As it happened, the following day's Globe had a front-page story about retiring Manitoba Sen. Sharon Carstairs giving up her long and dogged fight to improve care for Canada's elderly.

"The passion is still with me," she told reporter Rod Mickleburgh, "but I'm tired... I'll be 69 in April and I'm burnt out."

Carstairs had championed two Senate reports on aging and has given speech after impassioned speech, trying to call the government to action on providing a comprehensive plan that would ensure care and comfort for Canadians in the last decades of their lives.

But when it comes to planning for the problem, it's our senior governments that are behaving as if they're the ones with dementia.

They're so focused on being re-elected they forget why they are elected. But perhaps we can reach our crisis- management-driven political leaders in a language they understand.

We're facing a federal election.

And the party that actually comes up with a plan to manage the reality, rather than the myth, just might form the next government.

Not doing anything about it is getting old. Really old.
-- -- --

There was something about the third man at lunch the other day I didn't tell you. He has Parkinson's disease.

Which is why, in retrospect, his answer to how he would like to die shouldn't have surprised me.

"With dignity," he said.

Wouldn't we all?

Shouldn't we all be able to?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2011
© 2011 Winnipeg Free Press.