Getting Older Together: Aging in America

Well that’s the topic of this blog. Getting older or, put more succinctly, aging. Seven months ago, The New York Times devoted its entire Sunday editorial section to the subject. Titled “An Aging America Needs an Honest Conversation about Growing Old” (see lead photo), it describes our current situation in this country. Not just this country, in fact, but across the world. But here is where we live, and so that is where the editors start.

Although we may think of ourselves as a young nation, “thanks to falling birthrates, longer life expectancy and the graying of the baby boomer cohort (this writer raises her hand!), our society is being transformed.” An average of 10,000 boomers turn 65 each day. The Times continues:

This is a demographic change that will affect every part of society. Already, in about half the country, there are more people dying than being born, even as more Americans are living into their 80s, 90s and beyond. ... By 2034, there will be more Americans past retirement age than there are children. ... This shift has major implications. A drop in the working-age population typically means labor shortages, productivity declines and slower economic growth. ... Neither Social Security or Medicare were designed to handle the new demographic reality.

The editors point out that every one of us is facing or will face deeply personal issues like where and how we will spend the last years of our lives — or the final years of loved ones who need help now. The remainder of the editorial section describes emerging products and services that assist seniors in adjusting their homes and their lives for aging. Questions need to be answered — including, for example, who will care for the elderly, how cities should be designed in terms of lighting and sidewalk safety, and how can businesses can adapt to this demographic change.

Well, these are issues that I also believe our society needs to consider as we move into that future awaiting us all. On a more biologically basic level and turning to recent and ongoing science, in a more recent Times piece (Thursday, March 21, 2024), a front-page story is titled ”Breaking Down Why our Bodies Break Down.” Writer Dana Smith starts out by noting that consumers spend “$62 billion a year on ‘anti-aging’ treatments.” Products such as face creams, hair dyes, and Botox can give hope to those purchasing them that they will project youth. Playing perhaps on our fear of aging, “none of them can roll back the hands of time.”

Enter scientists on the scene who are attempting to do just that. Apparently there is a cadre of researchers who are trying to understand the biological causes of aging with the hope of slowing these visible signs of getting old and, more importantly, delaying age-related diseases.

According to Smith, these “hallmarks of aging” tend to fall into two categories — general wear and tear on a cellular level, and the body’s decreasing ability to remove old or dysfunctional cells and proteins. Smith quotes one of the researchers who says “the crucial thing about the hallmarks is that they are things that go wrong during aging, and if you reverse them, you stand to live longer or be healthier while you age.” Due to space constraints I’m going to stop right there and ask you to check out the rest of Smith's article. The research is fascinating and likely promising in the long run.

But folks, the sad fact is that you and I are part of nature, and there are inherent limits to our flourishing lives in any case. We will go the way of all flesh, as they say. But what sets us apart from the rest of nature (like the flower in your garden or the cat or dog at your feet) is that you and I know that we’ll end. And as I said in the last sermon I preached at St. Martin’s, we can make choices about how we’re going to live the one life we have here on earth.

Facing this plain, sad fact does open up an arena of choice. You can choose to love; you can choose to embrace opportunities to love and care for one another ... in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, till death. Or you can refuse to face these natural limits and choose to live a shriveled, embittered life instead — a tragic but dark possibility for all of us.

My final point is this: The sad fact of physical evil — sickness and death — can crush, but it need not. Moral evil, on the other hand — choosing evil over good — choosing hate over love — embracing evil and calling it good — destroys you utterly, destroys your very humanity.

So yes — questions like where you'll spend your final days have to be considered. But more importantly, how are you going to live out this one precious life you’ve been given? That is the ultimate choice we all face.

And let us pray we choose the good.

Amen.

 

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.