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Delving into the dark side of longer life

by Michael Hoffman

How long should we live? As long as we can? Japan boasts the world’s longest life expectancy — 83 years, 20 years longer than 60 years ago. Longevity is like prosperity: It seems an unalloyed good but on closer examination turns out not to be. Prosperity’s downsides include environmental degradation, stress and clinical depression. Longevity spawns dementia, infirmity, loneliness and a demographic imbalance favoring the very old at the expense of the young, with all the grim economic consequences that implies.

No social reformers talk seriously of limiting either prosperity or longevity. If they are good, more must be better. Their attendant problems are acknowledged but considered soluble. Clean technology will heal the environment. Wise legislation will generate saner working conditions. Medical advances will cure dementia.

Let’s hope so. A health ministry survey records 54,397 Japanese centenarians this year, up from 50,376 in 2012 and 153 in 1963. Soon, living past 100 will be typical — 100 will be “the new 60.” There are reputable scientists — led by British biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey — claiming that aging and death are not inevitable facts of life but curable diseases. If they’re right, our grandchildren could be immortal.

The weekly Shukan Gendai has thoughts on the subject that are not altogether cheering. True, expanded old age represents a medical triumph against a mortality that in the past pressed all too closely on human beings in their prime. True also: Old age as we know it today is, for many and probably most, no picnic.

Dementia is the direst scourge. Its expansion makes it hard to escape even if you don’t suffer from it yourself. Chances are a loved one does, or a friend; and to witness it, even distantly, is to be struck by the fear of it happening to you.

Shukan Gendai meets an 83-year-old man who, failing to hear from a lifelong friend in some time, paid him a visit and was greeted with happy surprise: “Oh, you’ve come to play! Let’s go to the vacant lot and play ball! Or should we ride our bikes somewhere?” The sick man had recognized his friend’s name and was immediately transported back to childhood, while his wife sobbed quietly at his bedside.

The friend, of course, took new and disturbing thoughts home with him. Had he just seen his own future? Might a momentary inability to remember where he’d put his car keys mean the beginning of a dreadful end?

Among other curses of old age are boredom, loneliness and pinched finances, if not outright poverty. A 71-year-old man the magazine speaks to compares his postretirement life to “crossing the Pacific on a slow boat.” Retiring at 60, he at first savored liberation from the daily grind, but empty freedom doesn’t satisfy for long, and what is one to do next? Ten years into his “new life,” he hasn’t solved the problem. You could reasonably say it’s his own fault, but comparatively few people — men especially — seem to have post-job occupations absorbing enough to fill the void.

“Pitiful” is Shukan Gendai’s description of men facing old age alone. Some are widowers. Many others are casualties of a new assertiveness among women, emboldened by changing times to demand compensation for a lifetime of conjugal neglect. That often means divorce — a potentially devastating blow to a man on the cusp of retirement looking blithely forward to a pampered old age.

A divorced 81-year-old man weathered that crisis long ago but now finds himself confronting a new one. The apartment building in which he has lived alone for years is slated for demolition and he must move, but real-estate agents don’t welcome solitary octogenarians as clients.

“I wouldn’t mind moving into a senior citizens’ home but my funds are low” — a common complaint after decades of living on a pension — “and I can’t afford it. So where am I supposed to go?”

Happy old age need not be an oxymoron. Shukan Gendai cites actress Mitsuyo Asaka, still active at 85 (“An actor has no age,” she says), and Spa magazine, in a different context, introduces a woman who started running track in her 70s; at 89 she’s still at it, setting world records in her age group. Ultimately, it’s our native optimism or pessimism that determines whether the negative or positive examples, both abundant if you look far enough, weigh more heavily.

There’s another related theme that Shukan Gendai, oddly enough, doesn’t touch upon but Spa, again in a quite different context, does: that of being left behind by the times. Old age has always been vulnerable to that — how much more so in times changing as fast as ours are! You don’t even have to be old.

Spa’s cases in point aren’t. They belong to a semi-extinct species the magazine dubs “analog man.” Though still in their 40s, they somehow never made the crossing into the digital universe. How could people so young have failed to? Some didn’t need computers on the job and so never got familiar with them; others, owing perhaps to some peculiarity in their natures, found the air in the new universe uncongenial and unbreathable.

“I tried to get my daughter to teach me,” says a 42-year-old bank employee who can input figures into a spreadsheet but not much else, “but I had no idea what she was talking about.” The lessons broke off in mutual frustration.

Says another: “I want to learn, but to find a PC school you have to use the Net! I don’t know how to use the Net — that’s why I need a PC school!”

If rapid and ceaseless change can overwhelm a 40-year-old, imagine how it must feel to an 80-year-old, or a 90-year-old — or the 200- or 300-year-old of the not-too-distant future, if Dr. de Grey and his colleagues are on the right track.