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What’s YOUR Choice: Living Old or Dying Younger?

mgullettes Icon Posted by Margaret Morganroth Gullette

March 28th, 2008

On March 27th, PBS repeated “Living Old”– its mainly depressive portrait of people over 85, most of whom are sick, and some of whom are sick and tired of living. The moral–implied in some of the interviews–is that no one should want to live that long. But hey, I finally said to myself on second viewing, don’t people under 85 die too? Don’t they get chronically ill, and in some cases tired of life? Don’t their adult children anxiously take care of them? Isn’t it expensive to have a chronic illness at 70, or, for that matter, at 35. The weirdness of “Living Old” is that it seems to forget all that, in its rush to make longevity seem a national emergency.

Why didn’t I notice this oddity the first time I watched? This time, by chance “Living Old”followed a brilliantly scientific, progressive special called “In Sickness and in Wealth.” In this first of a series called Unnatural Causes, public health officials are rightly upset that social class determines how long people live. What they want is that the poorest people in, say, Louisville, who die in their early seventies, may live as long as the richest people, who die at nearly eighty. Everybody on this show, starting with Michael Marmot (who did the first Whitehall study in England showing that people were sicker each rung down, the lower down on the class ladder they were) agrees that keeping people alive and healthier longer is a laudable goal. America has the worst inequality in the world.

It’s the richer, luckier people–mainly–who will live to be in their Nineties. If a film treated younger ill or disabled people the way “Living Old” does–focusing on their wasted hands, their hardship rising from a chair, their cupboards of pills, their circles of wheelchairs in a nursing home, and then getting Leon Kass to comment sagely on the misery of living too long–I think there would have been a lot more outcry.

As it was, when Frontline first showed “Living Old,” Virginia Heffernan of The New York Times said, “Seriously, I’m trying to save you the trouble of watching ‘Living Old,’ about our mass geriatric society.” See it,if only for the doctors who make house calls and the young geriatrician who points out how few like him American medicine is training, But first, go to www.Unnatural Causes.org– where you can read the transcripts and the introduction by Larry Adelman, the executive producer. This is exciting TV.

As for PBS, it needs to get someone to make a documentary (call it “Dying Younger”?) about how people UNDER 85 live and die when chronically ill–including, say a Native American woman in a reservation in Oklahoma, and someone under 65 on Medicaid. They could show “In Sickness and in Wealth” first, and then show “Dying Younger” and “Living Old.” Then we could have a real discussion about national health care and caretaking, with longevity not singled out as if THAT were the problem.

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