Special Diets and American Immortals

One thing (one of many!) that has changed since I was younger is the number of my friends on special diets. Dinner parties have become minefields.  Of course, older people with various ailments are even more likely to be avoiding certain foods than the general population; we are not alone in this, but we are the worst.  It makes entertaining difficult, but challenges us to learn to bake gluten-free, oil-free, sugar-free (and usually taste-free) fare.

I have always enjoyed cooking for other people.  I especially liked making birthday cakes, but – alas! – there is almost no one I can make them for anymore except hapless children.  Having just made a layered sugar extravaganza for visiting grandchildren, I realized how much I missed the joy of baking and consuming such an illicit treat.

I am not criticizing.  My husband and I are not immune.  We have struck things off our diet to lower our cholesterol, keep our weight down, and pamper our stomach linings.  I have terrible teeth, so I avoid nuts, hard candies, and anything else that might crack my very expensive caps.

From my work on old age, it appears that, in earlier times, there was little faith that doctors (fisicien), drugs (drogges), and diets (dyas) could help one avoid old age (elde) and death (deth).  In Langland’s 14th century Piers Plowman, the protagonist sees that even the doctor falls prey to old age and death, so what is the point?

Lyf leued that lechecraft ∙ lette shulde Elde,

(Life believed that medicine would delay old age)

And dryuen awey Deth ∙ with dyas and drogges.

 (And drive away Death with drugs and prescriptions.)

And Elde auntred hym on Lyf ∙ and at the last he hitte

(And Old Age ventured against Life, and he hit at the last)

A fisicien with a forred hood ∙ that he fel in a palsye,

(A physician in a furred hood so that he fell in a palsy,)

And there deyed that doctour ∙ ar thre dayes after.

(And there the doctor died before three days were passed.)

‘Now I see,’ seyde Lyf ∙ ‘that surgerye ne fysike

(‘Now I see,’ said Life, ‘that surgery and medicine)

May nought a myte auaille ∙ to medle aghein Elde.’

(Cannot do good at all [might avail] against Old Age.’)   (XX: 172-178, translated by E. Talbot Donaldson)

Langland is right – nothing much does “avail” against the onset of old age.  But, of course, medicine and nutrition have helped us live longer in old age.  But now, regardless of all our drugs and diets, life expectancy in the United States (and in much of the world) is falling, probably for the first time since the Black Death.

Ah, but you say, now we have better drugs and diets and doctors.  Yes.  And we can sometimes delay the inevitable.  But I do wonder a little about making life a war against old age and death.  In 1968, life expectancy was 68 years, in 2019, 41 years later, it had increased almost 20% to 79 (no wonder social security is in trouble).  However, by 2021, it had decreased to 76.  Part of the loss was due to Covid – but not all of it.  There were also increases in fatal drug overdoses, accidents, gun deaths, and suicides.   On the other hand we are keeping people with Alzheimer’s and most chronic conditions alive longer.  Women still live longer than men, white people live longer than black or brown people, and rich people live longer than poor people.

My own parents died at 77 and 89; my maternal grandparents died at 76 and 82.  They, of course, ate cheesecake and had their cocktails until the end.  Will I live longer than my parents?  And, of course, in making life expectancy predictions, one must also consider the life expectancy of the planet.  Enough said.

A few years back (2014), Ezekiel Emanuel (noted oncologist and bioethicist who was recently appointed to Biden’s Covid team and whose brothers are Rahm and Ari) wrote a much-discussed article in The Atlantic entitled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”  The title is misleading; Emanuel does not necessarily hope to die in his mid-seventies.  But he has decided that by age 75 he will give up all measures to make him live into a very long but perhaps debilitated old age.  He is clearly against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, but:

I am talking about how long I want to live and the kind and amount of health care I will consent to after 75.  Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible.  This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.

I wrote about Dr. Emanuel in a blog a few years ago, but I recently looked to see if he had changed his stance as he was almost ten years closer to 75. (He is now 65).  He has not completely reneged, but he has softened his stance. I think we all soften our stance as we get older.  Death is a scary foe, but not as scary (for me) as prolonged dementia or debilitating illness.

But back to special diets and what Dr. Emanuel calls the aspiring “American immortal.”  I have learned to give tofu some flavor, to cook with flax and applesauce rather than oil, and to live without red meat.  I am part of the trend, willing to cater to those who are trying more extreme measures – to a point.  I do think that we need to spend more time thinking about what we are saving those extra years for, and what we might be giving up as we look for the magic bullet.

I once wrote a story about how food can sometimes make us feel better, even though it might not make us last longer.  “A Spoonful of Sugar” ends with these lines: “Gabriella couldn’t figure out death today. But she would think about it again. Meanwhile, she would make more cookies.”  More cookies please.

Crabbed Age and Youth, or Silent Serenity Meets Carpe Diem

Crabbed Age and Youth” is the title of a wonderful essay written by Robert Louis Stevenson when he was but 38.  Of course, Stevenson never reached old age himself (dying in 1894 at age 44); one can wonder if he still would have thought old age was “crabbed” if he had ever arrived there.  Nevertheless, it is an excellent examination of irreconcilable differences between the old and the young.  Stevenson observes:

All sorts of allowances are made for the illusions of youth; and none, or almost none, for the disenchantments of old age.  It is thought to be a good taunt, and somehow or other to clinch the question logically, when an old gentleman waggles his head and says: “Ah, so I thought when I was your age.”  It is not thought an answer at all, if the young man retorts: “My venerable sir, so I shall probably think when I am yours.”  And yet the one is as good as the other: pass for pass, tit for tat, a Roland for an Oliver.

The old have learned something, perhaps, from experience; unfortunately, we cannot seem to pass that along.  Experience must be had (and hopefully learned from) by the experiencer.  And there is the additional problem, of course, that sometimes what the old have learned is a measure of fear.  We love the young because they are fearless; they dismay us for the same reason.

I had an experience this week of crabbed age encountering youth.  We have learned that it is often far easier to visit our children and grandchildren in their own environments; our house, our life, is not set up for either toddlers (too many fragile things to touch) or teenagers (not enough electronics or basketball hoops), so it is easier to go to them and see how the younger folk live (never jealous).  Like many in our generation, we are older grandparents – we are in our seventies and our grandchildren range in age from 2 to 15 (see my post “The Age of Grandmothers“).  Last week, however, we had a family of five visit with children from age 3 to 13.  Knowing we had a dearth of space and patience, we put them in hotel rooms; nevertheless, they were in our environment for about fourteen hours a day.  It was hard for me, and probably for them too.

As a habitual catastrophic thinker, I thought I had imagined all possible hazards.  I had put away breakables, locked away personal information, stocked the refrigerator and baked ahead.  I had good intentions.  But they weren’t in the house for five minutes before the ten-year-old was spinning her sister around in faster and faster circles in my favorite upholstered rocking chair.  I had no idea that it would turn 360 degrees, and no desire to see it send itself into orbit at the speed it was going.  The end table had already tipped over.  And so I “corrected” them.  Not a good start.

I never had a chance.  For one thing, we were outnumbered.  For another, they had far more energy than we did.  We hiked in the morning, ate lunch, hiked some more, and when we came home in the midafternoon, they were immediately looking for something else to do.  The only “something else” I was capable of was a nap before feeding dinner to the seven of us and cleaning up, all while hoping that nobody dumped their spaghetti on the carpet.

And there is another problem with spending too much time with your progeny.  You learn lots about their lives that is fun and interesting, but you also learn things that you don’t want to know.  More things to worry about, to catastrophize about.

But, back to Stevenson, they are young and we are the crabbed aged.  I don’t want to be young again, make the mistakes I made, have children underfoot all day and worry about how I am going to send them to college.  And they don’t want to be old.  So we rub along; they surely are glad to see the back of me (but also glad I packed cookies and sandwiches for their trip home), and I am glad to recede into my placid, quiet, and predictable rituals.

Stevenson, even though he was never old, knew that there was no use trying to make old age more adventuresome:

Childhood must pass away, and then youth, as surely as age approaches. The true wisdom is to be always seasonable, and to change with a good grace in changing circumstances. To love playthings well as a child, to lead an adventurous and honourable youth, and to settle when the time arrives, into a green and smiling age, is to be a good artist in life and deserve well of yourself and your neighbour.

The children and grandchildren are gone.  I’m a “green and smiling” old lady again.