Have you noticed in recent years the number of lectures, books and public programs on such topics as “aging,” “end-of-life issues,” “confronting death” and the like? It seems as though synagogues, community centers and much of the media have been delving into the topics of loss and dying as never before.
Chalk it up to members of the baby boom generation now getting on in years and turning their minds to that greatest conundrum of life: its end.
The baby boom generation has dominated the political, cultural and economic landscape of society for at least six decades. The first batch of them was born in 1946, after World War II — 3.4 million babies in that year, a jump of more than 20 percent over the previous one. The surge of births continued until 1964, creating about 78 million baby boomers and a demographic bulge that has had an outsized impact on the world. My generation, just before the boomers, became known as the “silent generation,” supposedly quietly conformist. In reality, many of the issues that would burst into consciousness later had their roots among us. It was the baby boomers, however, who loudly, emotionally and effectively brought them to the fore: racism, feminism, the environment and, later, anti-war rage. “Youthquake” was the term used to portray their overpowering influence as they hit their teen and young adult years. The rest of us dressed like them in those days: short skirts for women, bright, psychedelic colors for everyone. We sang and danced to the beat of their music, enjoying the Beatles, Elvis and rock and roll. Later we voted them into public office — think Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Now, the generation that didn’t trust anyone over 30 is reaching its 60s and 70s. And like everything else they have done through the decades, these boomers are pulling society along with them in their concerns about aging, illness and life’s end. Hence the seminars, study groups, articles and continuing research on those subjects. And that’s all to the good. Demographers say that by the year 2030, more than 20 percent of Americans will be over 65. So it’s important for society to pay attention to the health and economic matters that become especially pertinent in older age. It’s important for baby boomers and others to have their affairs in order and to know that their loved ones will be cared for as best as they can be. It’s important to plan for a future when people’s strength and health may begin to diminish.
Important, yes. But only up to a point. For many years, the subject of death and dying was a specialty of my husband, a psychiatrist. Compassionate and knowledgeable, he helped people through difficult passages in their lives. Recently I told him, jokingly, that his specialty was hitting too close to home now that we ourselves are aging; he’d better seek another field. Actually I was only half-joking. My real feeling is that as we grow older, we all need to focus on life as we live it more than on what might lie ahead. “Choose life,” our tradition teaches, and that means making the most of that precious gift that has been given to us. My father, who died at 100, used to say, “Better one hour above ground than an eternity below ground.” Jewish tradition is vague about what eternal life after death might be like, but it is clear about the value and significance of the life we know. We are tasked to cherish that life, to use it wisely to help ourselves and benefit others.
A widowed friend of mine, age 91, is getting married to a man of the same age. “We know we don’t have endless time,” she says, “but we want to use whatever time we do have as fully as we can.” Another couple, in their 70s, just bought a new apartment, which they are busily renovating. They’re looking out for things that will matter as they age, such as grab bars in bathrooms, kitchen conveniences and such, but mostly they’re having fun decorating the home they hope to enjoy in the years ahead.
In his old age, the patriarch Jacob complained to Pharaoh about the difficulties of his life. By contrast, the old King David took a beautiful young maiden to warm him in bed. I’m not advocating such behavior, and as a feminist I disapprove of it. But my point is that while Jacob wasted valuable time bellyaching, David made his life as good as he could to the very end. Sure, baby boomers, like the rest of us, need to deal with the realities of aging. But then we all need to move ahead and get on with the business of living in the most meaningful way possible.