Thursday, April 30, 2009

Quality vs Quantity

An article in today’s New York Times sternly warns against the dangers of eating red meat, like we haven’t heard this before – and as if this is what should be on our minds as the swine flu epidemic morphs into a pandemic. And it’s not just eating red meat (in increasingly greater amounts, they say) that’s cause for medical alarm, it’s the fact that many of the persons most likely to indulge in this dangerous food are also most likely to participate in other health risky behavior: smoking, eating too much fat and sugar, weighing too much, and exercising too little. Death from cancer or heart disease is apparently the real cost of a two-inch sirloin. I don’t bring this up as a Fat Acceptance issue (why bother…), but rather, as a genuine question: what kind of quality-of-life do health advocates imagine for the potential millions who will do all the right things and live to be 100?

As someone who cooks for and dines with a 95-year-old woman five nights a week, I can tell you that maximum longevity can suck, big-time. She spends most of her day alone and by lunchtime she can’t remember what she had for breakfast. She rarely knows what month or day or time it is (despite a huge clock/calendar on her living room wall). She’s arthritic and often in pain. She feels useless, depressed, angry, anxious, and bored. She’s getting by on Social Security and a modest pension. But all her life, she was physically active, a healthy eater, and a dedicated user of vitamins and supplements – and look, she’s made it to 95, isn’t that great? The fact is, if she’s lucky, she’ll die peacefully in her sleep at home. If she’s not, she’ll end up in a “facility,” living in circumstances you wouldn’t wish on the proverbial dog. I find all this as appealing as being stripped naked, tied to stakes on an ant hill, and slathered with honey.

The comedian Redd Foxx, who died at age 68 of a heart attack, used to say: “all these health nuts are going to feel pretty stupid laying up in the hospital dying of nothing.” Everyone seems to know, or know of, someone in their 90s who’s sharp as a tack and fit as a fiddle. In truth, such folks are few and far between. But even if the current obsession with health (which I blame on feelings of social impotence and a relentless diet of TV commercials for pharmaceuticals) produces a whole generation of geriatric wunderkinds, running, jumping and competing with an apple in one hand and an appropriately “green” bottle of filtered water in the other, what do the health nuts imagine the practical, day-to-day lives of these über-elders will be?

Multi-generational families living together and taking care of one another are as rare as fat starlets. We do a lot of talking about family in this country, but millions of people have no family; we’re single/divorced, childless, or both. In addition, statistics have shown, repeatedly, that even when coupled adults have several children, there is usually only one adult child who later handles eldercare in their folks’ gold-plated years; the other siblings are AWOL or otherwise useless. Retirement homes, which have been largely disgusting for decades, are giving way to Assisted Living Communities, a much more pleasant alternative – but available only to those with the extraordinary financial resources to pay for it ($8,000 a month is the average, and there’s no government funding for it).

Which brings us to the real nuts and berries of finances, as well as vital social intercourse. It is extremely difficult for many people, regardless of their health, to stay employed or to find new employment once they’re in their 50s. As families and friends scatter or die off, it’s also hard to forge new relationships. What are healthy “young” seniors supposed to live on, and do with their time (and do it with whom?), for the next 40 to 50 years? As people get and stay healthier for far many more years than ever before, there’s no guarantee they’ll be financially solvent, or well positioned to be socially engaged in a meaningful way.

Even if society makes all the economic and social transformations necessary to enable the elderly to live good lives (don’t hold your breath…), how are we defining “good” and “life” these days? If we devote ourselves solely to healthy eating and other healthy habits, where is (you should excuse the expression) the fun in life? Sports, power-walking at the mall, card-playing, arts & crafts, and folk dancing are not everybody’s idea of a good time.

In my [dissolute] opinion, our obsession with health is an unhealthy extension of our Puritanical roots, which seem to be growing new shoots as our society becomes more immoral, amoral, illegal and fattening. We also have no concept of a “good death,” let alone a real acceptance of death as a natural and perfectly okay part of life.

My advice is: have a hamburger and chill out. If you’re lucky, you’ll die before life becomes a living nightmare. But hey, if you’d rather shudder over every morsel of food you put in your mouth and live a tasteless, stressful, joyless life in an effort to live a really long tasteless, stressful, joyless life, that’s up to you. For my part, as Sally Bowles sings in Cabaret: “I made my mind up back in Chelsea, when I go, I’m going like Elsie.”

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