So Long, Methusaleh!

by Matthew Lubin | 11/27/96 6:00am

I am about as un-sentimental a fellow as you will find, but even I cannot reflect on the subject of old age in this country without becoming quite weepy.

"The witch that came, the withered hag, To wash the steps with pail and rag, Was once the beauty Abishag."

In Frost we catch an unfortunate glimpse of the prevalent view of old age in the United States: a thoroughly grotesque period of decay, pathetic mumbling about past glories, and, eventually, hollow years of senility. We have become far too tolerant of, not merely slights and mockery towards the old, but a eugenicist repulsion that borders on murderous. If for no other reason than the well-known demographic trends at work in the country, it is worth considering the origins of this phenomenon.

Into the venomous hatred for the old which is so openly condoned in this country there are many philosophical skeins woven. One of the most unpleasant is the notion, rarely openly expressed, but running like a putrid stream just beneath the surface of most social thought, that there is something far more vital, authentic, and "real" about life during the principal years of procreation than at any other time. Life, under this reasoning, consists of a preparation for the purely self-indulgent years between 15 and 45. This 30 year period is considered to be followed by a lingering, nightmarish spiritual and physical decline, without redeeming traits.

A point not at all free of intriguing implications is how these attitudes suggest the slipperiness of the term "racism." For what are we to call a frame of mind that consigns a certain segment of the population, identifiable by physical characteristics beyond their control, to a subordinate and hated position? A sentiment that can so little endure the elderly that it insists on residential segregation, establishing planned communities for them alone so that the rest of us need not be "burdened" by their presence, a constant reminder of the failure of our social system? The repercussions of such a mindset are apparent in motion pictures, television, and particularly in advertising of every variety. All of these media vastly underrepresent this segment and submit them to all manner of the most degrading caricature. This treatment, I need scarcely point out, is precisely that faced by old persons in this country; yet somehow the term "racism" is not permitted to apply.

The mass technological society, too, is particularly hard on the old. As one ages, nothing can be more natural and normal than a desire for stability and continuity in daily routine. How comfortable can one feel, then, in a society that continually exalts novelty, the "rising generation", posterity, and seems to be fairly uninterested in the people occupying the earth at present, particularly when they have "passed their time"? Consider how unfriendly the urban environment necessarily is for the old in a society that throws its members together in buses and subways, isolating them in the bellies of those great smoke-belching dragons, the monsters of the urban jungle. Who would not as the decades pass find their resolve and strength of character eroded by the rushing lights and sounds, the constant time pressure, the discomfort of being jostled by an indifferent mass of people, irrespective of age, sex, or rank?

Attitudes evolve gradually, but the evidence of this century is that they can change profoundly and perhaps even irrevocably, in a right and proper direction. How exceeding great is the comfort of every variety, moral and emotional, that older relatives provide! They provide instructive links to a world which seems all too quickly to be receding into oblivion, where there actually seemed to be distinctive cultures and ideals worth defending. I will not press this point too hard, however, lest I be guilty of the objectionable practice of treating a category of persons as a means to the pleasure of the rest of us, rather than an end in themselves. And, naturally, we can recognize that it is far easier to whine than fundamentally to change the underlying social and economic structures of the country. This does not mean the problem of the aged ought not be addressed with far greater urgency and decency than we seem inclined to bestow. It seems impossible that anyone could look at the swelling ranks of Dartmouth emeritus faculty living out their days at Kendal and not consider for whom the bell tolls.