At age 39, folksinger-mathematician Tom Lehrer lamented how little he had accomplished in his life by noting that “when he reached my age, Mozart had already been dead four years.”
by Dave Riley
“Listen to this,” Mrs. R said. “One in three babies born this year will live to the age of 100, official projections have concluded.” The projections were from an official statistics office in Great Britain.
“Amazing,” I replied.
“But wait! There’s more!” she said. “More than 95,000 people who were aged 65 back in 2012 are expected to celebrate their 100th birthday in 2047.”
“Makes me wish I could go back to being 65 again so I could live longer,” I said.
“You don’t think you’ll make it to 100?”
I had to think about that. Living to 100 had never been in my game plan. I mean we just didn’t think in those terms when I was growing up or even was well into adulthood. “Maybe I will,” I said.
With that we dropped the subject. The aging process, I thought to myself, goes ever so slowly when we’re young. When we’re in the fourth grade we can’t wait to get to junior high. When we’re in junior high we keep thinking, “If only I were in high school.” When we get to high school we ache to get to college. And by the time we get our degree we think we’ve lived a hundred years.
But for our parents, our first two decades or so didn’t drag along slowly, they raced by. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin once told a graduating class at his alma mater, Syracuse University, “[Your parents] think they took you home from the maternity ward last month. They think you learned to walk last week. They don’t understand how you could possibly be getting a degree in something today.”
But once we graduate, rehearsal, to use Sorkin’s term, is over, and “time shifts gears.” Years begin to zip by. Our own kids go from zero to eighteen long before we can set aside nearly enough money for college. And we begin to age. We hit the big four-oh, the big five-oh, and so on.
Well, hasn’t it been that way forever? Not really. In centuries past, people just didn’t live as long. King Tut died at 19. Keats at 25. Shelley at 29. Emily Bronte at 30. At age 39, folksinger-mathematician Tom Lehrer lamented how little he had accomplished in his life by noting that “when he reached my age, Mozart had already been dead four years.” Napoleon died at 51 and Shakespeare at 52. Bach lived to be 65, and given the enormous outpouring of musical beauty he gave the world, thank heavens he did.
“So we’re living longer,” Mrs. R. said when I quoted these numbers. “But we already knew that.”
Indeed we did. Last October the Cleveland Clinic cited these statistics from the Centers for Disease Control:
- As of 2012, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.8 years.
- Females outlive males, 81.2 to 76.4.
So how much longer do people live these days? The late Dr. Robert Butler, one of the founders of gerontology whose biography was the third post in this series, spent the last several decades of his life trying to get people, particularly people in positions of power and influence, to realize a not well recognized fact: in the 20th century the average life span increased thirty years. No kidding — thirty years! That’s greater than the increases in the last 5,000 years of human existence.
For most people this is a cocktail party factoid, but for Dr. Butler and others in his field, it is a development with frightening implications. The older we get, the less able many of us are to take care of ourselves — the more likely we are to have infirmities like dementia and crippling physical ailments that force us out of our homes and require that we find facilities and caregivers who can meet our needs. But there aren’t nearly enough facilities or caregivers to meet these needs, and even if there were, many of us couldn’t afford them.
“One in six older Americans lives below the federal poverty line,” says the National Council on Aging (NCOA). That number, says NCOA, almost doubles the number of very poor seniors compared to the standard estimate. The phenomenon is not new. As far back as 2009, USA Today, citing an AARP study, reported that more than 600,000 senior homeowners were delinquent or in foreclosure.
One of the newer catch phrases is that 90 (or 80 or 75 — take your pick) is the new 50. That idea infuriated Dr. Butler. The ideal isn’t just to help people live to 90. The ideal, he said, “is to make 90 a better 90. “
Dr. Marilyn Ditty, a California gerontologist for whom Dr. Butler was a mentor, quotes him on this subject regularly. “Are we living 20 more years with purpose and joy,” Dr. Ditty says, “or is it just taking us 20 more years to die?”