Commentary Magazine


Old Age and Other Laughs

What shall I do with this absurdity—

O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail?

 

    –W.B. Yeats, “The Tower”

I recently bought something called catastrophic health insurance for my college-student granddaughter—a policy that has a high deductible but is in place lest, God forfend, she needs to undergo a lengthy and expensive hospital stay. The insurance agent who sold it to me is a man named Jack Gross, whom I occasionally see walking around the streets of my neighborhood and who always greets me, often with a new joke. Being an insurance salesman and having me there in his office, Jack couldn’t resist asking me if my wife and I have assisted-living insurance, a policy designed for older people that pays for caregivers (or minders, as the English, more precisely, call them), thus allowing those suffering from dementia or other devastating conditions to avoid nursing homes. Assisted-living insurance is very expensive, especially if one first acquires it in one’s 70s, the decade my wife and I are now in. 

“Thanks all the same, Jack, but we have no need for assisted-living insurance,” I said. “We have pistols.”

“Great,” he replied, nicely on beat. “I just hope when the time comes to use them you are able to find them.”

The problem with that amusing response is that it has an uncomfortably high truth content. Memory lapses, sometimes significant ones, but often quite as maddening trivial ones, are as everyone knows a standard part of the problem of getting old. Why the other day could I not recall the name of an old Expos and later Mets catcher (Gary Carter), or the hotel in San Francisco that my wife and I favor (The Huntington), or the actress I used to enjoy talking with occasionally when we were both on the Council of the National Endowment for the Arts (Celeste Holm)? Where are my glasses? Why have I come into this room? I opened the refrigerator door for…what, exactly? 

The word old, I have been informed, is now politically incorrect. I recently read a book on the aging of the baby-boomer generation, Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, by Susan Jacoby, that introduced me to the words wellderly and illderly. Not very helpful. Aging isn’t much help either, for newborn babies are, ipso facto, aging the moment they emerge from the womb. Old, getting old, being old—these are words I prefer, and in this essay I’m sticking with them. 

The difficulty enters in deciding who qualifies as old. Unless brought badly down by serious illness, in the United States one isn’t any longer considered old at 62 or 65, the ages Social Security allows a person to begin collecting what used to be considered old-age benefits. Some people, owing to a good ticket in the gene-pool lottery, or through being scrupulously careful about their health, begin to get old 10 or so years later than do others. But old we all get, that is if we are lucky enough not to have been crushed by disease, accident, or war, and taken out of the game early. Next only to death itself, old age is the most democratic institution going—nearly everyone gets to enjoy it. 

Enjoy is not the word most people would use in connection with old age. Many fight off old age through cosmetic surgery, strict exercise and stringent diet regimens, pills beyond naming, hair plugs, penile implants, even monkey glands (the useless remedy attempted by W. Somerset Maugham and W.B. Yeats). More struggle against old age with the aid of one or another form of positive thinking: Keep your mind active, look on the bright side of things, remember life is a journey, you’re only as old as you feel, and all that malarkey. 

The first physical signs that one is getting old are those slight alterations in your body that remain permanent. Sometime in my late 50s, I lost the hair from my shins and calves, to which it has never returned. Not much later a few brown spots appeared on my forehead, never to depart. Capillaries burst, leaving parts of one’s body—in my case, my ankles—nicely empurpled. Bruises take longer to disappear than when one was young, and the scars from some of them never quite do. Time is a methodical and cruel sculptor. 

Conversations among friends take up new subjects. When young, my male friends and I talked a fair amount about sports and sex. Later, conversation about food and movies came to loom large. Nostalgia—“the rust of memory,” Robert Nisbet called it—began to set in around 60. Sleep is currently a hot topic, and by sleep I do not mean whom one is sleeping with, but instead how long one is able to sleep uninterruptedly. 

The first time one cannot make love twice in one night, I have heard it said, is disappointing; the second time one cannot make love once in two nights can be the cause for despair. Viagra and other aids have helped solve this problem, but pharmacology has yet to come up with a pill to make one physically appealing. Few things sadder than to watch a man in his 70s, forgetting what he looks like, flirting with a waitress in her 20s. Women are not without their own problems in this realm. I once heard a woman roughly my age tell a female friend that her bra size was now 34” long. 

Things once done easily, even blithely, suddenly require taking second thought. Coming down a staircase, I seek the banister. Walking on slightly uneven pavement, I remind myself to lift my feet. Don’t drive too slowly, I say to myself. The safety bar in the shower is there for a reason. Put on sunscreen. Virtue consists of ordering a salad for lunch; disappointment, in eating it. 

I used to consider myself a Jewish Scientist, like unto a Christian Scientist, if only in my avoidance of physicians. Proust says that to believe in modern medicine is insane, and that the only thing more insane is not to believe it. My body forced me out of the church of Jewish Science in my late 50s. When once I had a single doctor—a primary and in my case only physician—I now have what feels like a medical staff: a gastroenterologist, an ophthalmologist, a cardiologist, and a dermatologist. In the past 15 years I have been diagnosed (not always correctly) with Crohn’s Disease, autoimmune hepatitis, Celiac Disease; have had a triple-bypass surgery (though not a heart attack), cataract surgery, and a detached retina; and finally a charming skin disease called—and best pronounced in a W.C. Fields accent—bullous pemphigoid. Such a rich buffet of health problems eats into one’s former feelings of personal invincibility.

At 70, in fact, one awaits both shoes to drop: the tumor to form, the strange pain not to disappear, the aneurysm to show up on the CAT scan. Hypochondria, at this age, is the better part of valor, for as paranoids sometimes have real enemies, so do hypochondriacs sometimes drop dead. One awaits the results of “blood work” like a prisoner on death row awaits a governor’s reprieve. Preventive medicine, with its various specialists and panoply of tests, in old age can be as exacting as an illness. Santayana, at 85, was told by his physician to lose 15 pounds. “He evidently wants me in perfect health,” the philosopher remarked, “just in time for my death.” 

Fatal illnesses often strike older people without clear—make that any—reason. An acquaintance of mine who spent his life staying in shape—weight lifting, jogging, competing in triathlons, the works—recently died of lymphoma. Everyone knows of someone who never smoked getting lung cancer. Alzheimer’s blasts the most active and well-stocked minds. Immune systems break down, causing major problems no one could have predicted; body parts wear out, not all of them replaceable. It’s a minefield out there, with deadly darts falling from the sky. 

Physical change is accompanied by mental change. Time begins to register differently. Did this or that incident happen 8 or was it 11 years ago? Years back I met a lost unseen uncle, then about my age now, and asked him how old his son was. “Thirty-seven,” he said confidently. “He’s 45,” his wife corrected him. I ask an acquaintance if his daughter got into Stanford, and he tells me that she graduated two years ago from Yale Law School. The minutes, the hours, the days, weeks, and months seem to pass at roughly the same rate; it’s only the decades that fly by. 

Then there is the matter of repetition. Have I done this, said that, written the other before? Some things refuse to stick in the mind. Movies are high on the list. I seem to have arrived at the place in life where I can watch The Pelican Brief as if seeing it afresh every 18 months. One of the saddest things an old person can hear is a younger friend saying, “You already told me.” Friends one’s own age are more likely to say, “You may have told me, but I’ve forgotten, so tell me again.” 

One begins to notice that contemporaries have, in their garrulity, become bores. As there is no fool like an old fool, neither is there any bore quite as tiresome as an old bore. How close am I myself to having achieved accreditation in this line? In too many conversations, I note that I wait patiently to slot in one of my standard jokes or surefire (I think) anecdotes. Have I arrived at my anecdotage, the stage of mental decomposition that precedes full dotage? Do I break into too many other people’s monologues? Have I become like the man who, returning from a party, when asked by his wife if he enjoyed himself, replies: “Yes, but if it wasn’t for me, I would have been bored to death.” 

Crankishness, complaint division, sets in. How is it no man born after 1942 carries a handkerchief in his back pocket? Why is the membership of the entire U.S. Senate so bloody undistinguished? Might it be because the vast majority of its members are younger than I? One of the reasons the old complain about the world, Santayana wrote, is that they cannot imagine a world they will not be around to participate in being any good at all. 

One of the standby subjects of the old is how much richer, less gruesome, altogether better life was when they were young. The problem is that, when old, things genuinely do seem this way, and, who knows, they may well have been. Forty years ago, in my own line of work, universities seemed more serious, intellectuals more impressive, culture more weighty. I do not allow myself to lecture the young on how much better life used to be. I only talk about the old days with contemporaries, which is to say, with fellow cranks. 

With age, curiosity is curtailed, attention attenuated. This is especially so in the realm of advancing technology. I have friends my age who, even 10 or 15 years ago, could not make the jump to learning how to use computers. Even among those of us who love e-mail and have a rely heavily on Google and adore smart phones, the continual refinements on digital technology tend to swamp us. Do I really require Apple’s new app that will allow me to replay the entire Russian Revolution on my phone and store all my photos in my navel? 

During classical music concerts, my mind, like musical notes in a hall with poor acoustics, wanders all over the place, although the fact that the median age of the audience for classical music appears to be roughly 114 does make me feel refreshingly youthful. My stamina for museums and art galleries is now almost nonexistent. Less than halfway through a play, I ask myself why I have paid 85 dollars to listen to the lucubrations of a fellow even more stupid than I. Confronted with the prospect of travel, the effort seems greatly to outweigh the prospect of pleasure. More and more I feel like the poet Philip Larkin, who, when asked if he wished to visit China, answered yes, indeed, if he could return home that night. 

I live within a block of two large retirement homes. The people who reside in them, most older than I, are part of my everyday mise-en-scène. Many are in good enough fettle: Straight and kempt and cheerful, they have made the decision that living on their own has, for one reason or another, become too lonely or otherwise burdensome. Others have funny walks, or are bent with osteoporosis; a few have slightly vacant looks in their eyes. An occasional resident, in a wheelchair pushed by a Filipina minder, is deep into dementia and is not so much out for a walk as for an airing. I have watched some of these people go from walking confidently to using a metal cane to requiring a walker to disappearing. Doubtless you have yourself already heard the ugly rumor that the mortality rate at present is at 100 percent. 

Henry James said that when one reaches the age of 50, someone one knows seems to die every week. Now, with increased longevity, I suppose the appropriate age is 70 when one’s personal casualty list begins to grow at a swift pace. Reading the obits has long been part of my morning regimen. (A good morning with the obits—a word that sounds like a breakfast cereal—is one where no one under 90 pegs out.) If it’s not someone I know who dies every week, then someone dies who is a friend of a friend, or the editor or agent or publisher of an acquaintance. Friends go down with one or another of the vast array of cancers, heart attacks, ALS, Alzheimer’s. The latter drag on alive, but one begins to speak of them in the past tense. Sometimes people one knows die in clusters of three or four or five, as if mown down by a machine gunner. If I am allowed to live on for a decent interval longer, the dolorous time may arrive when I have more dead than living friends and acquaintances. 

For all that can be said on its behalf, Losing It, William Ian Miller’s book on the subject of old age, is not a gift one wants to present to a friend or relative on his or her 80th birthday. Professor Miller is an historian of the medieval world, with a special interest in Icelandic sagas, who teaches in the law school at the University of Michigan. Years ago I read—and reviewed in the New Yorker—an earlier book of his, The Anatomy of Disgust. He has written other books on revenge, fraudulence, and humiliation, and obviously has a penchant for darkish subjects. Self-described as “halfway between an essayist and a historian,” he writes well, with a slightly macabre sense of humor, with irony added, shoring up his arguments with rich historical comparisons and analogies. 

Writing a book called Losing It puts one in danger straightaway of giving evidence that one has oneself begun to lose it. Professor Miller’s premise is that he hasn’t quite lost it but is well on his way to doing so. “It” stands for one’s intelligence, wit, intellectual penetration, verbal agility, physical prowess, and strength, all the powers that one felt confident of when younger but feels slipping away with age. Miller’s bête noire in this book is the school of positive psychologists who claim that old age is the time of our lives, those serene golden years, all wisdom and tea (also tee) times. Miller’s own view is closer to that of a friend of mine who recently turned 90 and, to the question of what is the best thing about old age, answered: “It doesn’t last long.” 

Professor Miller laces his book with autobiographical bits, touching on his own experience of growing old. He is Jewish, despite that suspicious middle name of Ian, born and brought up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Losing It contains several references to the Green Bay Packers.) He was 65 when he began writing this book, 66 at its completion, a tad too young perhaps to claim the complaining privileges of old age. As a university teacher, his being around students may aid in making him feel old; nothing adds years on a person more than being regularly around the young. Miller worries, in fact, that in his book he may have exaggerated his decrepitude. He is after all a man who continues to teach, works out on an exercise bike, has a mother still alive (at 90), drives a motorcycle—not, clearly, everyone’s idea of an alter kocker

Intimations of mortality are what Miller has begun to feel, but, I should say, intimations merely. He speaks of memory lapses, of thinning hair, of no longer being quick in response, of his more attractive female students grasping that he is not really in sexual contention: “Oh, Professor Miller, he’s such a cute old man,” a colleague reported one such student saying of him. At the close of his book, he mentions a memory blackout he suffered—Transient Global Amnesia is its clinical name—before a Packers game. But where are his surgical scars? Where his white hair or baldness? He admits to taking Zoloft and Paxil, antidepressant and antianxiety drugs, but so far as I know, he doesn’t even have a plastic weekly calendar pill box, that badge of the older player. 

Where Losing It is most valuable is in its author’s recounting of stories of growing old in warrior societies (such as the Vikings, Norsemen, and Icelanders) and religious communities. In warrior, or honor, societies, a good death is one in which one goes down in battle, preferably with one’s enemies defeated, a ticket for Valhalla under the shield. In a religious, or at any rate a Christian community, martyrdom is the speediest way to heaven, there to dwell among the angels. In warrior societies one dies with a sword in hand, in religious communities with a Bible in one’s bed and a priest by one’s side. In secular societies, one is more likely to die with an IV on one’s wrist and a tube up one’s nose. The best death in a secular society is one in which one expires in sleep—in other words, a death, next to birth the major element in life, that one isn’t even around to witness. 

Professor Miller relishes retailing the problems of old age. He describes the shrinkage that takes place in the human brain. Dubious about old age bringing about wisdom, he holds that wisdom is rare at any age, and no more likely to be found among the old than in any other group. He even cites studies that conclude the old are stupider than the young, in relying more on stereotypes and appearances to make judgments. He is quite properly skeptical about the official wise men and women of our day: “I still find the wise dead considerably wiser than those we hold to be modern-day wise men and women, who, the more famous they are, the more likely they are to be charlatans.” 

No one gets Miller’s heart racing more quickly than those who find the prospects of old age cheerful. A book called Successful Aging he describes as advocating “staying spunky, thinking positively, and then dropping dead quickly when thinking positively finally succumbs to reality.” F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that the sensible state for the older man was mild depression. Miller wouldn’t disagree: “As a general rule,” he writes, “critical intelligence—mental acuity—wars with happiness.”

Miller takes after Stanford professor Laura Carstensen, whose optimism on the subject of being old drives him up and nearly over the nursing home wall. For Professor Carstensen everything in old age presents an opportunity for contentment. For her even “brain rot,” according to Miller, has its upbeat side. When Carstensen reports a sense of well-being among the elderly respondents to a study she has done, Miller asks: “Did she interview any old Jews? She couldn’t have, unless we have become more assimilated than I would ever have thought possible.” The work of Professor Carstensen and her followers he characterizes as “suspect science” and the selling of “snake oil bearing the Stanford label.”

Miller’s own view of old age is that it is downhill all the way, a journey that leads ultimately back to a second infancy, replete with diapers, hairlessness, loss of locomotion—a ride from goo-goo to ga-ga. In old age Miller sees only diminishment, humiliation, the curtailment of pleasure. Old age, he writes, “made it hard for several of the deadly sins to operate,” though here La Rochefoucauld beat him to the punch by more than three centuries, writing: “Old people like to give good advice as a consolation for the fact that they can no longer set bad examples.”

Live long enough, Miller warns, and even an exemplary career can be done in during one’s dotage. “You end up remembered,” he writes, “for your doddering vacancy…for your former self is now redefined in light of your drooling present.” Think of Bertrand Russell, a genius when young, a political fool in old age, hostage as he was at the end of his life to nutty left-wing movements. 

When I began teaching at Northwestern University, the great figure there was Bergen Evans, the lexicographer who had earlier been the host of a television show on ABC called Of Many Things. His courses drew six or seven hundred students; his lexicographical works were best sellers. A student in one of my classes who was taking Bergen Evans’s course in American usage told me that three times during the current quarter, Professor Evans took a letter out of his suit-jacket pocket, announced it arrived in the previous day’s mail, and read it to the class—and all three times it was the same letter. Oops!

Finding nothing good to say about old age, Miller does not ease up, either, on life after death. “Death does not lock in a reputation,” Miller writes. “What if 10 years after you die it turns out that your son is a serial killer, your daughter a positive psychologist [I say, that’s a joke, son], your grandchildren drug addicts and in prison? You are not safe, your virtue, your life, will be reevaluated, and…there is no relaxing, no satisfaction in a life once thought well lived if you have spawned a line of losers.” Not a speaker much in demand at Ann Arbor Rotary Club meetings, Professor Miller, I should guess. 

Do I need here to confess that I rather like my current age? I of course recognize, pace Yeats, that this is “no country for old men”; none, after all, is. Yet old age confers, if not wisdom—I would never claim that for myself, especially if I had it—then a certain amused perspective. From the parapet of 75, I can see the trajectory and final shape of the careers of my contemporaries, including the insignificance of my own. With the sense old age gives of time passing quickly, I find myself more patient now than in earlier years; old age has helped, if not entirely to defeat, then at least to quieten the traditional Jewish disease of shpilkosis

My age has released me from the need to be au courant, or even moderately with it. I am no longer responsible for knowing much about Madonna, Lady Gaga, and the young women who will inevitably follow them. With the grave yawning, surely I cannot be expected to read the 600-page novel about the assistant professor of English who discovers his father is a transvestite? The imminence of death may or may not concentrate the mind wonderfully, as Samuel Johnson had it, but it does provide a few clues about how to expend what remains of one’s mental energy. My hope, contra Dylan Thomas, is to go gently into that good night. 

At 75, I feel I am playing with house money—the rest of my life, as people used to say before the worry about cholesterol set in, is gravy. Lovely it would be to stay in the game for another 10 years or so, and I hope to be able to do so. But if before then some bright young oncologist or grave neurologist informs me that the time has come for me to cease flossing, I shall be mightily disappointed but scarcely shocked or even much surprised. On such an occasion I hope to retain the calm to count my blessings, which in my case have not been few. Among them will be that I have lived in freedom during a time of unprecedented prosperity, been allowed to do work of my own choosing that has been appreciated and decently rewarded, while never having been called upon to betray my friends or my ideals. Another blessing has been that thus far I have dodged the land mines, the flying darts, and the machine gunner, and arrived at old age.

Day, day, enu, as the Hebrew chant has it, dayenu, dayenu.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). His story “Remittance Man” appeared in the January issue of COMMENTARY.




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