Vail Valley Voices: The aging of America
Vail, CO Colorado
Time passes quickly when you’re having fun. And so, from time to time, I lament that my wonderful life will eventually come to an end.
When I was about 30 years old and working for a large institution, I remember being comforted by how many years I had remaining before retirement. It was my proxy for when I would actually be an “old” person. But alas, 65 is just around the corner for me.
I’ve experienced a greater frequency of aches and pains since turning 50. These senior moments inevitably cause me to reflect upon my mortality, a dramatic change from the feelings of invincibility when I was much younger.
I remember when my mom started visiting her doctors more often and complaining about this problem or that. Concern about her health increased as the years passed, and it seemed to take a toll. Fortunately, most were fleeting episodes, none life-threatening. As father time steals from us, we become more conscientious and diligent about health care. I’m not endorsing hypochondria by any means. Rather, we all need to listen to our bodies and be aware of telltale signs of serious problems.
The average age of Americans has increased significantly in recent decades. In earlier days, some ailments were never even diagnosed, and we died from other causes. But now, medical technology has advanced to such an extent that diseases are diagnosed early on, and our longer life span enables more diseases to attack our bodies and affect our lives.
Health care in the United States has become a huge issue because Americans are outliving the original forecasts made by insurance companies and employers, who pay for lifelong benefits. Actuarial estimates were seriously underestimated just as medical advancements began to accelerate. So now, Medicare and Medicaid are going bankrupt. Ironically, longevity, a good thing for society, has created a huge financial burden for America.
But, what about the mindset of older people? I find it very sad to see once powerful people waste away physically and mentally as they age beyond 70, 75 and 80. Physical limitations are almost always accompanied by mental deterioration, the latter being the scariest for seniors and their relatives who must care for them.
The telltale signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease begin much earlier than when these conditions actually incapacitate us. Slight memory loss and an inability to remember names affect almost all of my peers and me. I try not to let it concern me and keep my mind busy in a variety of ways, but it’s disconcerting.
Another non-life threatening ailment, that’s far more annoying to seniors and their families and friends is the gradual loss of hearing. Maybe I’m overly sensitive to this condition, but my friends and I are constantly saying “What?” and ” I didn’t hear you.” Noisy restaurants and places with loud background dins are the worst as they impede easy conversation.
By far the most important change is a senior’s status in his or her family, business and society. After we age beyond a certain point, we become increasingly irrelevant. I’m not saying that the elderly aren’t respected for their accomplishments of yore or as a parent or grandparent. Rather, others sometimes don’t seek their input relating to even the most mundane subjects. And in some cases, the young mock seniors in cruel way.
As we approach the end of our lives, many things will change. The maturation process reverses and we will become more dependent physically and mentally. We’re babies when we’re born and become babies again as we approach the end of our time. It’s important for older people to focus on all of the beautiful things that happened during their lives so that they are better equipped to make a final transition.
The lesson for all is that no one can escape death. In fact, we begin to die the moment we are born. It’s critical for everyone to cherish those things that are most important and try not to let petty issues ruin our remaining days, weeks or years. And, equally important is the respect that each generation should have for preceding generations.
Sal Bommarito is a novelist and frequent visitor to Vail over the past 20 years.
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