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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Getting Older Every Day

ATTENTION: This entry has been written with a smile. In no way do I intend to show serious regret about getting older. I am happy to announce with great confidence, "All reports are in. Life is now officially unfair." All I can say today is "wait until you get a little older." As you ease out of your middle-age, "still in the know" years and into the beginning of your "geezer who is beginning to lose it" years, you can't help but wonder why everything passed so quickly. Yesterday my life grew lush, green fields and my heart was aglow with high hopes; today, it's more like the hay has been baled and the most exciting events have been downloaded into my slowly failing memory. Hopefully, I still have a some good years ahead, even in the face of some difficult reality. I need to survey the territory of the ground to be covered. I'll begin a look into my future with ascertaining the average life expectancy of an American male. The National Center for Health Statistics claims this "good news" now stands at a record high of 76 years for a white male. Since I am currently 58, this means I probably have a whopping 18 years of aging left before I go over the rainbow. Not that I'm not appreciative, but that stark reality of time left compares to a newborn growing toward high school graduation, and I'm pretty sure I won't feel like a teenager when St. Peter calls. I know I have an opportunity to live beyond 76, but staring at the so-so odds doesn't make me feel like wagering big money on the proposition. Females live longer on the average, so chances are my spouse, who is younger than me, will need to refresh her dating skills for senior center activities. I know that health issues, in general, are not going to improve with age. According to the National Institute on Aging, people ages 65 and older consume more prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines than any other age group. They actually buy 30 percent of all prescription drugs and 40 percent of all OTC drugs according to the Food and Drug Administration. I really don't want to increase my already healthy handful of daily medications, but as long as they work, I'll do so if necessary. Today, swallowing another pill for an ill is similar to clicking the remote-- frequent, painless, automatic. According to gerontologist Dr. Vincent Cowdry: "Medicine has shunned geriatrics. It has viewed the elderly patient as a bad pay risk. It has misdiagnosed and maltreated him." He estimates that fully 30% of mental-hospital inmates over 65 have diseases no more "mental" than partial paralysis, heart trouble, untidiness, nutritional problems, or high blood pressure. Aging, then, also implies that I will be misdiagnosed and maltreated, if treated at all. Please tell that to my psychiatrist. Time reports among the commonest medical problems of the aged are high blood pressure, which goes with hardening of the arterioles (small arteries), and hardening of somewhat bigger arteries, especially those in the brain. I already have one heart stent, so I am well aware of the risks of hardening of the arteries. But, already on blood thinners, I hope to keep this problem at bay. But, oddly enough, I wouldn't necessarily mind if some things did remain pleasingly rigid. Then, I read on and the following information dealt me a quick blow of reality. According to AARP in Modern Maturity, about half of 45- through 59-year-olds have sex at least once a week, but among 60- through 74-year-olds, the proportion drops to 30 percent for men and 24 percent for women. Clearly, some health concerns are going to make for bigger matrimonial pressures very soon, which leads to affecting mental health, which leads to misdiagnosis, which leads to ...? Complications are facing me just around the proverbial corner. No wonder older gentlemen get grouchy and need stronger prescription glasses. Enough of that, now it's time to examine the money situation during my Golden Years. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that my income per household member will peak, increasing with the age of the householder and the size of the household until the householder reaches the age of 64. Then, with retirement income replacing salaries and the size of the household declining, the median household income decreases as well. That means any good financial news will likely cease in about six years, but since I am already retired and my wife is approaching retirement, our income per household has likely neared the bottom of its illustrious history. The national debt alone equates to $30,400 per person in the U.S. with the median household income hovering around $43,200. According to the Federal Reserve Bank, 40% of Americans spend more than they earn and 92% of a family's disposable income is spent on paying debt. Other projections show that over 90% of all Americans will retire financially dependent on the government, family, or charity, and these retirees will need 70-80% of their pre-retirement income to live comfortably. The poverty rate for people 65 and over is now 10.2%. It doesn't look as if we're going to be living like the Gates' in the next several years. Cancel the new car, condo on the beach, and the occasional steak dinner. So what about the power in numbers created by my Baby Boomer population? The 65 and over group accounts for 12% of the total U.S. population. This does not sound like the powerful "gray power" coalition I was somehow led to believe would exist during my oldest years of life. Politically speaking, not much can be influenced with a low population of seniors. We are pretty much driftwood on the shores of Washington. To add to this figure, the Census Bureau found that among the older population, those 85 years and over showed the highest percentage increase. That's great when my average life expectancy is 76 years. Well, at least some will be using a record number of walkers and wheelchairs as they recover from knee and hip replacements. Maybe the quality of life will be good in my remaining years. Crime is always a concern. About 1 in 5 of personal crimes against the elderly are thefts compared to about 1 in 33 for persons age 12-49. When compared with other age groups, persons age 65 or older were disproportionately affected by property crimes such as the aforementioned burglary in addition to home invasion, vandalism, larceny, and car theft. Speaking of driving during old age, information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that the fatality rate (number of deaths per 100,000 in the population) for drivers between 16 and 20 is almost twice as high as those 65 and older, but the actual number of fatal accidents involving seniors outnumbers those of teenagers with seniors more likely to be at fault in these fatal crashes. In addition, older drivers have a much more serious percentage of accidents for every mile of driving. So, this terrible news means that if I am fortunate enough to continue to drive, I have a greater chance of becoming a remorseful killer on the roadways and serving my remaining life in the penitentiary for manslaughter. To boot, long-distance walking gets a little tougher with each passing year, so that healthy alternative to driving seems unlikely. And I can't imagine myself, all helmeted 210 pounds of me, peddling a bicycle in those tight nylon shorts and jackets. I think I would prefer the pen. The stigma of potential crime places some serious pressure on the aging individual. Well, guess what I also discovered? Memory suffers if senior citizens believe they are being "stigmatized," meaning that others are looking down on them because of their age. Dr. Tom Hess and a team of researchers from NC State showed that older adults' ability to remember suffers when negative stereotypes are "activated." So, when people refer to me as a "geezer, fossil, fogey, has been, and coffin-dodger," they contribute to the loss of my positive self concept and to the erasure of my memory. Sadly, when stereotyped too often, I will have lost enough brain cells to remember my perpetrator anyway. Then, completely out of touch, I will risk being shuffled off to a rest home to eat creamed corn and mushy mystery meat. That is, if I can beat the odds and survive long enough to arrive at the home. Even one of my simple pleasures seems to be gaining great disapproval. Due to health and economic costs related to alcohol consumption, beer prices have reached record highs. Instead of drinking one beer a day to improve my health, I feel guilty and concerned about the cost of buying alcohol and the effects of enjoying a "cold one." There is growing concern that problem drinking among mature adults is likely to become a significant public health issue (Breslow et al., 2003; National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism [NIAAA], 2000). Maybe, Medicare will approve alcohol prescriptions for health purposes. After all, folks in California now have access to medically approved marijuana with annual sales reaching $14 billion. Vegetables, the state's second hottest agricultural product, take in a mere $5.7 billion. (Katharine Mieszkowsk; March 3, 2009) Finally, I may need to consider the final outcome. Many researchers believe the largest single factor in living a ripe old age is the old person's need for a community of interest. Nature seems to have ordained that those who abdicate from life socially will soon step away from life physically. This proves daunting as I read the obituaries each day and discover more and more of my close acquaintances are leaving the earth. I hope enough of my society is left in the time I have remaining to share common interests. And, I can tell some of my interests are becoming not only harder in which to engage but also drastically changed in composition. Have you seen the dwindling selection of older artists' CD's in stores these days? I guess my favorite R&B started declining in sales when Motown and Stax classics disappeared from oldies radio stations. Even my love, music, is proving me to be a dinosaur doomed to extinction.

In conclusion, at least one thing seems to be getting easier. Dr. Cowdry urges old folks to be philosophical about death. "It's not a terrible surprise," he says. "Usually you find that when death is ready for you, you're ready for death. And it's a medical fact that death comes less unpleasantly in later years." Thank goodness for one small consolation. I hope I can remember to be pleasant when the time comes. Postscript: I remember reading Centennial by James A. Michener. In the book, an old Indian warrior was nearing the end of his life. A raiding party of braves was preparing to take horses from an enemy tribe, so the old warrior insisted on going with the braves to the enemy camp and being "staked out" with a rope on enemy ground so that he would have to stay there and die as a warrior in battle while the rest rode away with their newly acquired horses. He was definitely killed in action. Maybe, I can at least dream of living a full life, a life of perceived goodness and worth, until I go down with enough fight left in me for one last battle. I hope I am able to perceive a worthy cause if that may be, and I would love to leave with a bit of a smile.
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