The Eternity Dilemma
I’m afraid to get old. I saw what happened to my grandparents, and even before they were ill they were losing friends. When my grandmother died, a piece of my grandfather left with her. Mortality is overwhelming, and it is scary to see other people make peace with it. The fear of loss is twofold. We want to live and we also want to remain with the people we love. In the face of this existential dilemma, many retreat to spirituality, where questions about reincarnation and the soul come to light.
Others focus on life extension, working toward immortality through supplements, regenerative therapies and exercise. Another chance. Life and life after death are infinite sources of concern and inspiration, enough to prop up all kinds of faiths and belief systems. In its feral days, human life was about not dying, beating the odds to see another day. Once their survival was tended to, we created society as a space for people to find new meaning. Within this space, you can find love, a career, a language to express yourself and so on. We’re all getting older, but society isn’t aging with us. The fear of death comes hand in hand with the fear of outliving your peers. Isolation in your later years means a separation from other people as well as a separation from your generation and society at large. In America, we ignore the realities of aging as well as seniors themselves. Neglect and prejudice alienate older Americans, pushing them out of the workforce, erasing them from the media and damaging their health. Despite this neglect, seniors are America’s fastest-growing segment. About one in eight people in the world are over sixty today, and by 2050, that number will be one in five.
With 32 years added to their average life expectancy since 1900, seniors and their role in society are shifting from year to year. In the past century alone, US. life expectancy at birth has climbed from 47 to 77 years, creating new demands for change and reorganizing the economy. As of 2018, there were 47.8 million Americans aged 65 and over, and with the number of elderly people rising each day, we should be embracing this growing population as the knowledgeable, experienced and valuable resource it is. Yet, poverty, isolation, lack of education and insufficient social programs forecast a grim future for America, a nation in which 68% of its citizens are not saving enough to retire. Throughout life, our relationships with the individuals around us influence our health in profound ways, and of all factors related to senior health, loneliness is the most talked about and deadliest. The risk of death among men and women with the fewest social ties was more than twice as high as the risk for adults with the most. Thirty-five percent of adults age 45 and up in the US are lonely, and their isolation has been tied to conditions including development and progression of cardiovascular disease, recurrent myocardial infarction, atherosclerosis, autonomic dysregulation, high blood pressure, cancer, delayed cancer recovery and slower wound healing. Over 12 million seniors in the US (28%) lived alone in 2016, many of whom faced loneliness as a major health risk factor.
Those seniors living alone said they face physical, cultural and/or geographical barriers that keep them isolated, struggling to find the infrastructure and support they need to travel and see others. Elders in isolation are at a 59% greater risk of mental and physical decline than their more social counterparts and are more pessimistic about the future, predicting a decline in quality of life. Our society is not designed for people to grow older. People in old age live through their partnerships and often into solitude. Unmarried seniors spend almost all of their time awake by themselves (~10 hours), and the likelihood of living within a family household shrinks with age, from 73% to 48% between the ages of 65 and 85. Despite the fact that seniors 80 and up make up America’s largest growing demographic, these individuals rarely star in TV shows or appear on the covers of magazines. Insurance companies use the term elder orphan to describe seniors who live without a family; today these individuals and those at risk represent 22% of people 65 and over. Fewer people get married, millions live in nursing homes and more than ever their lives are pushed from the mainstream. As people experience similar conditions of separation and isolation during quarantine, we should ask ourselves how we can learn from our own experiences of disconnectedness. We should consider how technology can bridge these gaps and be effectively taught to an older generation.