Our aging futures: Last scene of all

The vast majority of caregivers are female, and not too much thought is given to taking care of them.

Last scene of all Our aging futures (photo credit: Courtesy)
Last scene of all Our aging futures
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In my family we don’t, as a rule, grow old. Not for us Shakespeare’s melancholy Jaques’ oration to the scene of As You Like It that ends the strange, eventful history we call life – the “second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” We die in our prime, teeth intact, but I often wish I’d had my parents, and my husband, for a quarter of a century longer; I’d gladly have paid the price of a few years of caregiving at the end.
So, it was not without a little bit of envy that I attended the 13th Anglo-Israel Colloquium on the ‘Ageing of Society’ (the British spelling, with an “e”) at the magical Mishkenot Sha’ananim Hotel, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. At the very least, I figured, I’d be able to find out whether statins are good for high cholesterol or not. (Spoiler alert: it depends on whom you ask, on your other risk factors, and on who paid for the research.)
The Anglo-Israel Association, under whose auspices the proceedings are held, was established in 1949 by Brig.-Gen. Sir Wyndham Deedes; indeed(s) such a name alone guarantees delicious discussions. The idea was to foster goodwill between Brits and Israelis; to proclaim that it’s not for Jews alone to support the State of Israel. (How well that sentiment might go down today among certain British politicians would fill another column.) Under the guidance of Lillian Hochhauser, who has spearheaded the colloquia since 1997 with the support of her late husband Victor, British experts in various fields have been introduced to their Israeli counterparts and experienced Israel for themselves, away from the spin of the press. The Chatham House Rule is strictly enforced, ensuring that anyone may use information gleaned from the talks, but not quote the speaker or reveal participants’ identities; this, plus a huge amount of gourmet food and wine, makes for relaxed, open chats.
Almost everyone knows that to stay healthy longer we shouldn’t smoke at all, or drink alcohol to excess. We should exercise and cut out most comfort foods: cheese cake and chocolate, though they taste so good, are actually evil. A bit of bitter choc, if you really must, won’t kill you so fast. (In my family this doesn’t work; we’re poster-people for healthy living, until cancer hits, hard. Oh well.)
But did you know that by 2070 Israel is slated to be home to twenty million citizens, and that long before that our Social Insurance Fund might run dry? Did you know that old age is a gender issue: twice as many older women live alone than men, and women can live for statistically longer in ill health. (Do they make better chicken soup?) Old age is no laughing matter for women at risk of psychological and physical abuse; all females are more vulnerable than men, and older women all the more so. Did you know that employment pensions are much lower for women, who can also retire some five years before their husbands or sons, although statistically they’ll live longer?
THERE’S SOMETHING else: the vast majority of caregivers are female, and not too much thought is given to taking care of them. Some 40% of family members develop depression in the course of looking after a loved one. How can they be helped? The issue of end-of-life is thorny: when grandpa is reduced by dementia to not remembering who he is, or when pain is so awful that granny wants to die, how should a caretaker act? One participant recalled begging for more morphine for her mother in the last hours of death; the doctor refused on regulatory rules. I could relate to that with my blood; it’s agonizing to watch a loved one in agony.
Actually, it’s the government that decides on when suffering becomes torture; most countries don’t even discuss euthanasia. Imagine the Knesset weighing in on that; if we ever do form a coalition it would surely collapse on the spot. And on the subject of the government, over a traditional Shabbat meal of kiddush and chicken soup, Dan Meridor, once considered a Likud Prince, shared his views on the current government imbroglio. (I’m writing this as half the nation celebrates Mandelblit’s decision to indict, and the other half cries foul; by the time we go to print who knows what will be.)
Meridor spoke during Benny Ganz’s chance to form a coalition; he was not optimistic that Netanyahu would cooperate. “I suspect our prime minister’s problem is not how to form a government but how to stay off the hook,” Meridor announced. (That was one week ago; how quickly things whoosh into history here.)
It was an amazing talk; Meridor dazzled Brits and Israelis alike with his wrap of the uniquely successful establishment of the Jewish state: our ingathering of the people, our economy, our success in defending ourselves despite dramatic odds.
Then our once deputy prime minister, minister of finance, minister of justice, and minister of intelligence and atomic energy in the Israeli Cabinet enumerated the challenges facing our tiny country: if we annex the West Bank and embrace a one-state solution, we won’t be a Jewish state anymore. Either the extra Arabs will soon outvote us, or we’ll to live in a country that doesn’t accord suffrage to all its citizens – like apartheid South Africa. “We must stop settlement activity,” he stated, only days before Pompeo announced the US’s new policy on the West Bank.
Israel has never been a complacent sort of place; Meridor embraced the fierce debates that have always raged here. “But controversies always revolved around democracy and human rights,” he added, “there was basic agreement on basic values; the public accepted decisions of the court.” Today, he who espouses democracy, human rights or the rule of law is attacked as being a leftist, or a traitor; the Supreme Court, journalists, the police are all being undermined by the leader of the people. It’s not a pretty sight.
I sit at my desk and type these words and think back on my (not yet extremely long) life. I am not really “old” yet, but I am old enough to have seen the world change. As a youngster I scurried out of South Africa as fast as I could; I hated living under apartheid. Now, I listen to my prime minister inciting viciously against the Arab minority here at home, and calling people like me (and presumably Meridor) traitors.
I wonder if getting old is all that it’s cracked up to be; do we really want to live to see democracy crumble?
And then I think of the gorgeous grandchildren growing up under a Jewish sky, and I send up a prayer to any God who looks after the elderly: let’s get a good, sane, liberal government in place here to give us the hope to grow old in peace and dignity.
And let’s adopt the Declaration on Ageing put out by Jerusalem’s Colloquium so that we can all grow old in dignity and comfort, dandling great-grandchildren on our knees, with a clear conscience that we have given them a pretty decent country.
The writer lectures at the IDC.