Monday, February 15, 2010

Growing old: getting old

As Professor Arnold J. Toynbee indicates in his six-volume study of the laws of the rise and disintegration of civilizations, schism in the soul, schism in the body social, will not be resolved by any scheme of return to the good old days (archaism), or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future (futurism), or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the deteriorating elements. Only birth can conquer death—the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new.

- The Hero with a Thousand Faces
New evidence suggests that retreating permanently into a pastime heyday could promote longer living. The more quacktastic radical details of a 1979 study into behavioural anti-aging techniques have been made public, and it would surprise me very much if an "old people are so lively" movie had not been greenlit on these details:
Surrounded by props from the 50s the experimental group would be asked to act as if it was actually 1959.

They watched films, listened to music from the time and had discussions about Castro marching on Havana and the latest Nasa satellite launch - all in the present tense.

Dr Langer believed she could reconnect their minds with their younger and more vigorous selves by placing them in an environment connected with their own past lives.

- BBC News

Which is just precious, is it not? I bet those old people got to dancing and riding motorcycles and doing all the things you see on life insurance commercials!
As they waited for the bus to return them to Boston, Prof Langer asked one of the men if he would like to play a game of catch, within a few minutes it had turned into an impromptu game of "touch" American football.
Perfect. But did it work?
Prof Langer took physiological measurements both before and after the week and found the men improved across the board. Their gait, dexterity, arthritis, speed of movement, cognitive abilities and their memory was all measurably improved.

I think Professor Ellen Langer is basically a movie villain.

I read the BBC article the same day I learned that my brother had delivered a short eulogy I'd written for my grandmother. Though she had been fed up with life for at least the last ten years, her last months were spent not preparing confidently for the next step on her journey, but slipping gradually into muted primal terror. Her steps toward death were slow swings between a desperation to be rid of the world, and a weakening resolve to hold onto the last thing she knew: her failing body.

In his phenomenal book, On Monsters, Stephen Asma suggests that the allure of undead creatures is their place within the Freudian Uncanny: simultaneously casting us backward into a childish, primal state of death-resistance even as they provide a literal embodiment of the inevitability of death. The article on the hokey-as-you-please Langer study fills me with the same Uncanny horror: a childish parody of nostalgia inhabited by poor doddering dupes, taking their place in a misguided fable about the power of imagination even as they slouch toward whatever the 1970s version of Bethlehem might be.

It doesn't surprise me that such a study happened, and it doesn't surprise me that we'd talk about it, but I'm glad my gran wasn't around to read about it.

1 comment:

harvestbird said...

Your grandmother's last months sound very similar to the last months of my grandmother, who died in July 2005. During that time we wished, and did not wish, for her moments of lucidity in which she was often frightened, not so much of what was coming but of what was happening right then; the failure of the body and the brain.

I also wrote a eulogy for her which was read by someone else -- the minister-celebrant in my case. This was as a result of a promise I had made to her after another relatives funeral some years before, in which two of the deceased adult granddaughters had read their eulogy while weeping uncontrollably. Do not, she said in the car on the way home, ever do anything like that for me (the pulpit weeping, not the eulogy).