Thursday, September 24, 2015

How you live is how you die

Yes, selfies and shark attacks can kill. But what we really fear is old age
Suzanne Moore

As we seek to prolong our lives, we shut old people away, only happy to see them if they are healthy and happy

Are we afraid of old people? Photograph: Alamy

Every day I read about something that will help me stay alive for longer. Usually, it’s something dietary: a bean, a berry, some kind of vegetable that we use to feed cattle. Then there is a message about moderation. Somehow, I soak this information up, regurgitate it to my friends over too many units as we nod in agreement that we should do something about ourselves. Information is power, but sometimes it feels more powerful to ignore it. Am I slowly killing myself ? Clearly. Will I live to regret it? No idea.

But there are always new things to worry about. One survey shows that more people died last year taking selfies and falling off things than in shark attacks. This isn’t funny really, but it seems to me I was always far more likely to die in the pursuit of some narcissistic exercise than anything that involves swimming. Is this stupid way to die any worse than some sensible way to die? Because the sensible way to die involves getting really old, which is terrifying.

The cool thing is not to be afraid of death, but of the actual dying bit – and when I was younger, I am sure I said that. Now I am afraid of all of it: cancer, Alzheimer’s, having every day overcast with cloudy, arthritic joints. Then I strip my fears to the bone and they are about being dependent. And losing my sense of self. And needing other people. And I wonder: is this a fear of dying of old age – or actually a fear of old people?

This may be a vile thing to say but it’s there, isn’t it? We constantly talk of an ageing population in an abstract way. This is the subtext to why we may benefit from taking in refugees. They will care for us in the end. We constantly express our disgust at the way old people are treated but we don’t want to see them unless they are healthy, happy and hiding their diseases. Jackie Collins was amazing to do as she did, but most of us couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep up appearances like that.

The reality is that many of the illnesses of old age will hit if we get to 80, and most of us are befuddled by what to do. We must keep alive and be kept alive while actually being given minimal care and regarded as an embarrassment. It is as if the time-bomb of this unproductive, decrepit layer of society is a theoretical discussion that is solved by bolting down green juice and behaving like immortals.

Doctors who deal with mortality, day in and day out, can be good to bad to brilliant. The best I have seen have been paediatricians – possibly because there is something so unnatural about children dying that it cannot be ignored. When one of my children was in an intensive care ward, two of the eight children there died on the same day. Everyone was openly devastated: the parents, the nurses and the doctors. They got us together and talked about how they felt and how they would work for our children.

On cancer wards, though, I have seen curtains pulled round a bed while a corpse is removed, with not a word said to the other patients. But what some of the best thinkers who happen to be doctors (Henry Marsh and Atul Gawande, for instance) are now talking about is both ageing and death, and how to have the best possible end, knowing that it is going to end. There is a consistent line coming from medics worried about the suffering caused by overtreatment. This means thinking about what to prioritise – especially with the elderly. It is to talk about quality of life and a return to personhood. What does this individual need? And the answer may not be medicine.

Gawande took his father’s remains to Varanasi, sprinkling his ashes in the Ganges water. He knows, as a good Hindu, that this rite is sacred. But as a doctor, he also knows that to sip the holy polluted water is dangerous, so he premedicates himself. However, he still ends up with giardia. But what comes from his experience is his father’s vitality, his work and connections remaining vivid till the end.

This is in sharp contrast to what we know is actually one of the biggest diseases of old age: loneliness. It may well be a cliche to contrast Gawande’s extended family to the atomised existence of the west, but the figures speak for themselves: a million people over 75 say that they don’t know their neighbours and haven’t spoken to anyone for a month. Their company is a TV set.

So when physicians talk of the myriad problems of treating the elderly, when we talk about palliative care and assisted suicide, we must be honest. The reality is a set of policies that have slashed social care, underpinned by the idea that caring is itself a low-status, feminised activity. The corollary is that what it means to be cared for is to be the lowest of the low. Old. Alone. Helpless. So we shut old people away as we seek to prolong our own lives. Indeed, a privilege of the west is we now fear not dying, but ageing, as much as we fear death itself. We literally cannot face our own futures.

This piece from The Guardian sums up so much of what I feel, and don't talk about, around the subject of ageing and death. Bill and I watched his parents fade over time, each in their own style (Dad fighting and cantankerous, Mum wryly humorous and grateful for everything she had). If we live so long, we don't know what our end-style of living will be, or how our dying will unfold.

I often say - probably too damn often, it's one of those things I've started saying - that the way you live is the way you die. Gangsters are shot down in cold blood. Drunk drivers drive drunk and die (often taking others with them). The grumpy die most reluctantly, wanting to win just one more battle and failing. The grateful, like Mum, go out as gently as a tide.

Talking about and looking at old age is deeply taboo in a culture that still worships youth, or at least only accepts old people who act unnaturally young. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a news item about an "oldster"? They're always reaching some incredible milestone like being 114 years old, or getting married at over 90, or running a marathon. No glimpse of adult diapers, of speech contorted by strokes, of infirmity. And certainly, no loneliness.

I'm over 60 now, though I still can't quite believe it, and Bill is nearly 70. I don't say this to him, but when he dies I will be very tempted to go with him. I'd like to. I don't want to outlive my mate. He's my mate, for God's sake, my life partner. I would never be one of these widows who boo-hoos into a kleenex for 5 minutes, then takes off on a cruise. There would be no new boy friend to scandalize the family.  My life would be over. No, really, it would. I don't care how correct or incorrect that is, and I don't care if "most women adjust just fine" and "only grieve for a year" (apparently having an "on/off" switch somewhere in their soul).

I can face looking after him for years, being infirm, institutionalized, anything. We did say "in sickness and in health", and we also said, "'til death do us part". But they didn't tell us how to do it.

I'm not much good at this life thing, and in many ways I really think it would be better if I wound it up in the next couple of years. Suicide is hard on the family however, and the memory of it never quite goes away. It would be cowardly, because the apocalypse is coming in the next ten years, and maybe I need to be here, and maybe not. Depends on who else is left.

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Muslims are the Jews of 2015

If you've followed this blog at all, you'll see that I'm almost apolitical. I stick to popular culture, strange social trends, personal passions (including my favorite, obsolete technology), and random bizarre-iana, with a few swipes at the Writer's Life (such as it is). But something happened today that sickened me so much, I had to write about it. A person I thought I knew well posted the most bigoted video I have ever seen. A woman was ranting in a continual stream without taking a breath, blaming "the Muslims" for all the evils in the world. The point seemed to be that she came from a Muslim background herself, so she knew the score and couldn't be wrong. 

When confronted with the jaw-dropping bigotry of this kind of thing, people always backpedal rapidly, saying oh, no, no, we didn't mean ALL Muslims! Then why did they not say "Muslim extremists" or "Muslim terrorists"? No, all the way through this video which everyone praised so highly, she referred to "the" Muslims, a name that reminds me, most sickeningly, of "the" Jews during World War II. Below are my journal reflections on this gut-sinking thing, followed by my response to the video on Facebook, which will no doubt provoke strenuous denial that they did anything wrong. Jeez, can't we say anything at all any more without people being oversensitive?  It will be either that, or "wake up, Margaret, they're taking over the world and you'd better accept it as fact." 

If I cut loose from social media, and I am VERY close to it now, this video will be the last chop.

I was ambushed today by the most hateful thing I have ever seen on Facebook, something posted by a childhood friend of mine whom I knew to be formerly in favour of civil rights. It was a news video about “the Muslims” with a woman ranting and ranting that they represented pure evil in the world and were destroying everything in their path. It appeared with the caption “This brave woman is risking her life to finally tell it like it is!" 

The idea that most Muslims are peaceable is steadily eroding. They are the Jews of our time, and not enough people see it. I could not believe a former friend, an intelligent woman with formerly liberal views, did this horrible thing – it made my guts squirm.  Nobody seems to realize that that little word "the" changes everything, because it refers to the entire group. This changes speech into rhetoric and a diverse group of people into a target. Then they had a ranting and raging man in a turban on the video who just foamed at the mouth about the Koran, making Islam look even more innately violent and destructive, but they could just as easily have shown a white supremacist or a member of the KKK. But in the unenlightened public eye, the knee-jerk response will be, "oh, look at that. One of those Muslims."

As I watched all this, I had an awful, gut-sinking sense of a chess game being played on an ever-more-tilting board. A huge number of people are massing against a select group, and it may end the civilized world because it is Third Reich syndrome. All we need now is a Hitler. People hate Muslims because the media is feeding them lies that they are responsible for every atrocity that happens, and that hatred is only massing and burgeoning. The fact this was posted by a childhood friend just stunned me. She obviously believes this stuff if she’s putting it out there and praising this woman as some kind of heroine. I was more appalled than I have been in years. FB is completely poisoned for me now. 

This is a response to a video which I felt was misleading. Every day now I see news items which no longer differentiate between the Muslim community and "the Muslims" (terrorists) who are behind all the evil in the world. Living in a city which has a very large Muslim community, this gets me in the gut. Quotes from the Koran are pulled out of context to demonstrate how primitive "they" are in what "they" believe. I try to deal with this issue below.

Using this terminology ("the" Muslims, which she used repeatedly) paints them all with the same brush, refers to the entire group and does not differentiate between the peaceful and the murderous. I am being repeatedly shot down for saying this (and it scares me), but the vast majority of Muslims I know personally are peaceable and completely appalled by what is going on. We may not approve of their customs, just as I certainly do not approve of much of Christianity, but the majority are not promoting or performing acts of terrorism and do not support these acts at all. I don't see Muslim families hiding in the bushes in the streets of Vancouver with bombs. 

Saying "the Muslims" are responsible for terrorism and the evil in the world is distorting the truth, just as if we saw the KKK/white supremacists as representing Christianity. As for ideology, let me pull out a few choice Bible quotes: "an eye for an eye", "slaves, obey your masters," "women, submit to your husbands," "women should keep quiet", "I come to bring not peace but a sword" (Jesus). Most Christians do not adhere to these beliefs, but still call themselves Christian. 

The belief that Muslim extremists are behind all the atrocities is not-so-slowly being eroded as Western culture begins to equate "the Muslims" with "terrorists", and "converting to Islam" as synonymous with "joining the terrorists". It is human nature to scapegoat and find a group of people to hate and blame, and this is a formidable force which can unite a society in hatred. This has happened before in history, with disastrous results. The fact this is a woman from inside the culture does not automatically make what she says true. Finally, if a Muslim family moved in next door to you, would you be afraid? Would you try to make friends with them? Would you let your children mix with them? Marry one of them? Ask yourself.

(Post-blog exhaustion. I finally gave up on working on/editing and re-editing this because it was bloody exhausting, and I don't think anyone will be swayed to believe the word "the" has any significance at all. They just don't see it. Talk about nit-picking! Political correctness! But it still makes my blood run cold, and I don't understand why so many people don't seem to know what I'm talking about. Though that's nothing new.)

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