latter half of the 20th century was characterized by
an extraordinary increase in the number of seniors
in the United States. This was brought on by the ever-increasing
life span, made possible by humankind’s increasing
scientific conquest of nature.
These new multitudes of the aged have caused the phenomenon of aging to become
a dominant political issue. This became reflected in the use of the term “senior
citizen” to note this new development, sometimes disparagingly.
As Geoffrey Nunberg, as Stanford linguist, points out in the New York Times,
it’s normal for the generation coming of age to coin names for the generation
that is passing from societal leadership. The professor attributes the current
naming action, however, as a product of a cult of youth, especially those put-down
words like old coot, geezer, fuddy-duddy, codger, old crone, etc.
Nunberg quotes historian David Hackett Fischer, who characterized these put-downs
as reflecting a dramatic change in society, from a previous deference to the
old to a contrary contempt and neglect.
Earlier, the old were revered as storehouses of knowledge. Unfortunately, while
the application of science has been the principal cause of lengthening life spans,
it also has been the cause, by its ever-increasing rapid development, of outmoding
the knowledge base possessed by the older population.
Yet in all this poke-fun-at-the-elderly development, there is a notable restraining
savings feature. It should be obvious to one and all that the nature of consideration
given to the old of today sets the pattern for the respect and care of the old
of tomorrow, the age-putting-down youth of today. That fact, along with the long,
past historic patterns of respect for the elderly, should be more than ample
basis for a renewal of caring, civilized behavior toward the old.
With the continued advance of science, a brand new approach to the elderly is
evolving. This is bringing about extreme talk about a post-human future, a science
fantasy kind of future.
What gives rise to this talk is the pill-popping, medicated life that most seniors
(and others) live today. Over the past half century, health-conscious, educated
people in the United States and other wealthy industrial countries have come
to take pills for granted.
The pharmaceutical, pill-swallowing human has quietly come into existence. Folks
are not only being treated with pills for acute illnesses, but they also take
feel-good pills and performance-enhancement pills, the latter especially if one
is an athlete.
There is now almost no bodily function that can’t be adjusted by drugs:
blood, respiration, the nervous system, hormone regulations, muscle and bones,
the cardiovascular system, reproduction, sexuality — drugs are available to
influence all of these one way or another.
Ways to better treat Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s
and spinal cord injuries through stem cell research also are looming.
The complete pharmaceutical human seems to be just over the horizon, and what
this portends for society should make most interesting history.
Ruhig is well-known in Sacramento for his tireless advocacy
for proposals designed to help seniors live long, happy,
full lives. He has held leadership roles in several advocacy
groups and on government advisory boards. Ruhig once sued
the California Department of Aging for age discrimination,