AARP: Shades of Old Age

A little over a year ago I went off salary at The Hastings Center, keeping a few duties but losing the formal status that gave me health insurance through private carriers. I promptly signed up for Medicare coverage and simultaneously for the AARP medigap program. Since I write on health care and aging I was naturally curious to compare Medicare coverage with the earlier private coverage, and to see if medigap was as good as advertised. I have been pleased on both counts and have felt even more economically secure than I had earlier. But I haven’t really put them to the test, deciding simply to avoid all serious illnesses, long-stays in ICUs, and rare forms of metastasizing brain cancer for which there is a $200,000 painful treatment good for three-to-four extra days of life.

What I could not avoid was paying $15 a year charge for a subscription, with accompanying membership, to AARP The Magazine, required as part of the medigap plan. I did not complain: a $15 a year charge for any magazine is a good deal. I was also curious about AARP, an enormously successful outfit with a nonprofit and a for-profit branch. It is a good example of meeting the traditional test of Washington success (where its offices are), that of starting out to do good and ending up also doing well. It has had lots of critics over the years for that mix, but that doesn’t interest me nearly as much as trying to figure out, reading the magazine, just what its take on aging is. It is well edited in modern terms, with lots of pictures, small boxes full of factoids, colorful illustrations and typefaces, and celebrity interviews.

The issues the magazine takes up are varied and cover most of the main issues of aging. What it doesn’t much cover are those in the 80-plus age group–unless of course it is someone at 85 who recently finished a marathon and was photogenically met at the finish line by his new 50-year-old wife and their two little twin IVF-procreated children. (Yes, I made that up, but it is true, in some higher sense or other).

When I first heard about the AARP, I believe the membership age was 60 or 65, but it later dropped to 50. When you think about it a bit, this seems a bit odd. The usual story is that people are now living longer and old age is starting later. The notion that the line for aging could be pushed lower, all the way down to 50, seems counterintuitive. But it kind of makes sense for an organization that mixes philanthropy and profit: enlarge the potential market both up and down in age.

Moving the age down now captures not just the young-old and the old-old, but those who might be called the geriatric pre-K group, those who will someday be old but are approaching that stage with trepidation and some anxiety. The unrelenting thrust of the magazine is to remove fear among the pre-K group about the road ahead. It is full of hope: featuring plenty of glowing, thriving, attractive 50- and 60-year olds–but you have to look just great, not a day over 50, in order to be featured as a 70-year-old. Banished from that scene is the retirement stereotype I was raised on, that of playing golf every day for the men and grandma visiting the grandchildren for the women; and not much anymore about taking cruises. Now it is social activism, good citizenship, joining up with some high-minded cause, walking 30 minutes a day, and continuing to enjoy sex. .

A political scientist friend recently contended that the American system of values has now effectively been reduced to three: safety, health, and choice. Well, it is more complicated than that but not too far off. Those three values are on regular display in the magazine: a desire to be safe from unexpected dangers, to be independent and free to make lifestyle choices, and especially to be in good health.

My most recent issue warms up with “5 Ways to Beat A Cold” and, on the same page, a paean to drinking caffeinated coffee, which can lengthen life, reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, and help muscles relax after strenuous exercise. Three cups a day is best, but there was no mention of the likelihood that the recommended three cups also induces more daily trips to the bathroom. I guess that is a good tradeoff.  

Another section of the magazine had four “Tests That Could Save Your Life”: capacity to name a famous face in a picture (dementia), assessment of sleep quality (early clues for Parkinson’s), ability to smell peanut butter (early Alzheimer’s), and strength to open jars (disability in later life along with postoperative complications and premature death). The one about opening jars, I confess, really brought me out of the closet, and they could have added any purchased item enclosed in hard plastic. That feature was followed by touting the benefits of three red fruits (for a stronger heart).

A later section of the same issue makes use of public opinion data on “How Americans Really Feel about Aging.” Some 45% of us think others believe we look younger than our age. In my own case, I think it would be 98%, but then my friends are more perceptive than most Americans. Another feature of the survey found that as people get older they find aging easier than they expected, and that was also true with their expectations about their energy. But the surveys stop with people in their 70s. I can testify that it gets tougher after that, probably even if you are the old marathoner with twins.

Daniel Callahan, 83, is cofounder and President Emeritus of The Hastings Center and the author of the recently published “Medical Progress and Global Chronic Disease: The Need for a New Model” in the Brown Journal of World Affairs. 






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