restricted access Old Age Ain’t No Place for Solipsists
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Old Age Ain’t No Place for Solipsists
Ian Brown. Sixty: The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning? Toronto, ON: Random House, 2015
Michael Kinsley. Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide. New York, NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2016

A poignant desire of many who live with Something Bad is to recover their old lives, so that every ache, or cough, or twitch does not portend Something Worse. To those alert to how their bodies perform, or fail to, however incrementally, aging can be like that. And writers are among the most alert, including to the boomer market (people born between 1946 and 1964), many of whom who are now in thrall to what happens towards the end.

Two writers chart different courses to instructive reflection. Though they sometimes steer us through boomer shallows of self-consuming introspection, they stay off its rocks. Michael Kinsley, famed to many boomers as sharp, wry, and fearless in the first shoutdown matches of cable TV political shows, was diagnosed in his early 40s with Parkinson’s disease. Ian Brown, the celebrated Canadian journalist, has built on his brilliant Boy in the Moon memoir of being dad to Walker, a child suffering from a disabling and rare genetic disorder, to ponder on all the little signals of accumulating deficits that aging bodies send to their occupiers. Kinsley and Brown also offer gerontologists insights into some of the ideas, debates, and practices of our community.

Despite being rooted in the idea that in its poor balance, shuffling, being stooped and slow in movement and thought, Parkinson’s disease portrays aging in general, Kinsley’s is the much funnier of the two, and the happier. His is also the more polemical. For some years, as will surprise few social gerontologists, Kinsley resisted the label of being ill, working hard to hide his diagnosis. A New Yorker profile had perceptively portrayed characteristic signs such as being unblinking and deliberate in movement, but saw these as professorial, not parkinsonian. Still, Kinsley has no truck with the “it`s all just socially constructed” crowd when it comes to treatment. From this, he has benefitted for almost two decades, first from medications and later from deep brain stimulation. Although grateful to, and even admiring of, many of his physicians, he is not uncritical – he is too clear-eyed for that (it`s not just being unblinking). He recognises the scandal of understanding Parkinson’s disease only as a movement disorder. Even today, much mainstream writing describes [End Page 121] problems of affect and cognition as “non-motor symptoms” of the illness. He also calls out physicians (and this spoke to me) on our seeming “strange satisfaction” in telling patients when some aspect of their illness is conforming with its predicted course, as though that should reassure.

For someone so clear-headed about public policy, Kinsley offers an unlikely prescription for how boomers should treat the large public debt run up in our maintenance: We should mostly pay it off ourselves, in some sort of voluntary scheme – with tax incentives, of course. Curiously to me, he rubbishes, as an “immortophile”, the philanthropist Larry Ellison (of Oracle fame) for funding basic research on aging. In this, as in seeing the future of computer processors, Ellison is ahead in seeking to discover what the diseases of aging had in common.

By age 60, Ian Brown is aware of creeping health deficits, and some more-dramatic episodes. As the year starts, he awakes with a “brewing chest infection”. It settles, but 60 turns to 61; noting how time seems speeded up, he remarks on “how it seems weird to be this label” and to have “the usual roster of regrets”. Brown’s well of equanimity is not always the deepest, and absent a real worry, the litany of complaints does not always cast him in the best light. He makes clear, however, that for him, the comparison is less to others his own age – though there is that – and more to his younger self. The effect can be wearing, as when he interrupts a passage about not having enough money to enjoy a trip to the Cotswolds by noting...