Competitive aging

The huge baby boomer cohort of which I am a part—people born between 1946 and 1964—has always been a competitive bunch. We’ve competed for jobs and spouses, for material possessions (remember the old bumper sticker “He who dies with the most toys wins”?) and, of course, for concert tickets.

Now, suddenly, we’re competing on a new front: longevity.

Admit it. Who doesn’t scan the obits every day, noting the ages of the deceased and thanking the Lord our own names are not among them? We hear of illnesses among friends and colleagues with rueful relief that for now, at least, we’ve been spared. We scan the faces of contemporaries for signs of aging, marveling at how some look so youthful (did she have work done?) while others seem old—and we plot our own place along the continuum.

The writer Michael Kinsley is here to tell us it’s a losing battle. At some point, says Kinsley in his new book, “Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide,” we are all going to suffer the misfortunes and humiliations of aging; ultimately, we are all going to die.

The author, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in his 40s, considers himself something of an advance man—“a scout from my generation,” as he puts it, “sent out ahead to experience in my fifties what even the healthiest boomers are going to experience in their sixties, seventies, or eighties.”

This short book, essentially a collection of linked essays, explains just what that that experience involves.

For starters, Kinsley—a well-known political commentator and the founder of Slate magazine—describes what it’s like to lose a plum job opportunity, presumably because of the employer’s fears about his health; what it’s like to take a boatload of meds every day; what it’s like to endure major surgery (in his case, “deep brain stimulation,” a procedure that has mitigated some of his Parkinson’s symptoms); what it’s like to contemplate no longer driving, with the loss of independence that entails.

Even scarier, Kinsley explores every boomer’s dark fear that if we live long enough, we are statistically ever-more likely to develop dementia. Who wants longevity if losing one’s marbles is the price?

Parkinson’s has long been classed as a movement disorder, Kinsley explains, but the disease affects cognition too. His own case is mild and slow moving, and seemingly has not hampered him too much. Kinsley has written books and articles, edited magazines and gotten married since his diagnosis.

Nevertheless, a recent cognitive assessment—a four- to five-hour round of tests, quizzes and games—showed slippage in certain areas from his baseline some years earlier. It was a sobering experience for a man who makes his living by his wits.

Kinsley admits that he spent the first eight years after his Parkinson’s diagnosis in denial. We baby boomers might be doing something similar as we attempt our generational end run around aging. Kinsley’s book—saturated in humor despite the weighty subject matter—helps us contemplate what’s coming with good grace.




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