Eliminating Old Age America
William H. Mumler: Unidentified elderly woman seated, three “spirits” in the background, c. 1869
by Douglas Penick
In her harsh critique of our prospects in industrial society as we enter old age, Simone de Beauvoir cited Marcel Jouhandeau: “Survival in old age is extraordinary. You are no longer attached to anything and yet you are more sensitive to all.”
But she added from Aragon: “I feel myself a stranger among people.”
Beginning in the late summer of 2021, the death toll from the coronavirus soared. I wondered: Who is dying? Is one group more victimised than others? I heard of some relatives of friends, friends of friends, friends of relatives, getting sick and dying, but neither I nor anyone I knew was surrounded by large numbers of people who were stricken. Throughout the rest of the year, this didn’t change much. Who were all these dying people?
Who was dying became very clear in a New York Times article, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies, on December 13, 2021. This report stated that 1% of all people in the USA over 65 years of age died of Covid. It also put this statistic another way: about 75% of all those who died of the virus were over 65. (The share of the U.S. population over 65 is 17%.) Overall, the article did not explore the meaning of these statistics except for interviews with elders talking about isolation, fear and desperation.
These statistics raise two painful questions. Why, prior to the publication of these figures, did it seem like no one noticed that the elderly were dying in grossly disproportionate numbers? And, more shockingly, why does no one seem to care now?
It is astounding that after these figures were made public, there was no discernable outcry at all. In fact, the article appeared for one day and then essentially disappeared. There was no follow-up. But certainly if one percent of any ethnic group, gender or people identified by sexual orientation were dying, this would cause tumultuous protests. And if one percent of all children, adolescents or adults were dying, there is no question that this would provoke vigorous and swift social action.
But, to my knowledge, the article cited here is the only one reporting on these statistics. Television and cable discussions of what groups have been most affected by the Covid 19 virus and variants have sometimes considered race, but usually without citing sources. In the rare mention of Covid death among the elderly, the words “co-morbidity” and “obesity” loom large, as if the first were not code for wear and tear and the second did not imply that all this was the result of culpably bad diet. Nursing homes are sometimes blamed. The numbers involved do not excite comment, not among newscaster, not among MDs, not among pundits. That these numbers might tell us something about our relationship to our parents and forbears, our past altogether, our memory? No.
Perhaps it is inevitable that in a commercial culture whose values give priority to economic productivity, personal monetary worth and purchasing power, those who are no longer wage earners are regarded as inessential and, deep down, a wasted expense. In this context, old people are something of an embarrassment whose continued existence requires tiresome forbearance. Nonetheless, it takes wilful ignorance to evade the fact that everyone has or has had relatives, loved ones and friends who have not just died, but were actually, for some period of time, old. And all those in the USA who don’t die before (pick a number) 65 will become an old person and will then find themselves on the receiving end of all the assumptions and attitudes referred to above. Will they accept this as meekly as do the current crop of decedents?
We like to think that our world has become more compassionate than in earlier, more primitive times. We like to think that while some societies have had to abandon their enfeebled elders, many societies have revered and cared for their old, and we are among the latter. Self-congratulation is perhaps not in order. Simone de Beauvoir ended her book on old age with the following paragraph:
“…Society cares about the individual only in so far as he is profitable. The young know this. Their anxiety as they enter upon social life matches the anguish of the old as they are excluded from it. Between these two ages, the problem is hidden by routine. The young man dreads this machine that is about to seize hold of him…;the old man, rejected by it, exhausted and naked, has nothing left but his eyes to weep with. Between youth and age there turns the machine, the crusher of men…”
Well, Phillip Larkin saw it too and began his poem, “The Old Fools” like this:
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don’t (and they can’t), it’s strange:
Why aren’t they screaming?
Some equally grim verses on, he ends:
We shall find out.
About the Author
Douglas Penick’s work has appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.
 Simone de Beauvoir- Old Age– tr. Patrick O’Brien, Penguin Books 1977-p.498,9
 Simone de Beauvoir-ibid-p.604