My father passed away last month so just trying to return to normal now. I'm no "confessing animal", to use Foucault's description, so I won't be waxing poetic by offering bon mots about death as part of "the human condition", or going into great personal detail about what has just happened. However, I am prepared to say that I am now hoping, more than before, for a future where people can be dignified and old.
I've certainly heard enough horror stories where, because of the poor working conditions, aged care facilities are understaffed. So, for the sake of manageability, some respite care homes are drugging the clients who have Alzheimer's and dementia to make them more docile and therefore less demanding. There is obviously a huge unmet need for new forms of cognitive therapy to engage the elderly rather than just leaving them to vegetate and sit out the clock. "God's waiting room" was one apt description that came to mind when visiting these places--they are seriously depressing.
But I regard any therapeutic "solutions" as merely a way station to something more ambitious. Yes, governments depend on us dying so they don't have to pay for our upkeep if we aren't self-funded retirees, but I hope it will be possible to rethink and ultimately radically restructure the work-life cycle to redress the lack of value invested in older citizens. Part of the irony, of course, about governments panicking about declining birth rates is that little consideration to date has been given to how greater investment in negligible senescence research could mean that children need no longer be solely relied on as the future reserve army of labor: I am certain that more older adults would prefer to remain productive in some capacity, which would counterbalance the need to fund respite care. Just think of the reduced costs of early education as a "knock on" effect of more transitions in the life cycle of the existing populace, rather than having to "start from scratch" with each new generation of children. I am not advocating a zero-sum game though because I simply believe that more people, especially women, would genuinely benefit if they had greater freedom to postpone (or avoid them altogether, if preferred) caregiver duties, or to decide whether children were their best option for leaving a "future legacy," or for finding someone to look after their welfare when they grow old.
Ultimately then, I hope there can be more than just a losing hand for those who devolve into the "second childhood" where they become totally dependent and can't even shower, go to the toilet, or dress themselves; let alone retain their identities because of memory loss. I am sure there would be some devotees of psychoanalysis who would diagnosis my basic problem as being a lack of a capacity to "mourn" and therefore accept the inevitability of decline. I remember the sociologist and analyst Ian Craib eloquently describing how he tried to teach his clients this lesson, and yet Craib passed away in his early fifties from cancer. Perhaps there is some "cold comfort" in accepting your lot in life, but by the same token, surely nobody wants to feel cheated of all the productive years (for some this would mean paid employment or volunteer work) that might, and should, have lain ahead.
Just after my father's passing, I caught wind of a talk by sociologist Steve Fuller about ageing. I've been too busy to listen to it yet, but its timely appearance was a reminder to me of why I have to keep monitoring and, where possible, commenting on, developments with serious future implications. I find Fuller's sociology a more useful tool than Craib's. As Fuller reminds us, death is not the exclusive preserve of the old, "the young can get into it too." He's not trying to be flippant here either. I have it on my iPod so will try to listen to it later today as I work my way through things.
And yet, my father did enjoy this Death In June song:
LITTLE BLACK ANGEL
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Black angel, black angel
As you grow up
I want you to drink
From the plenty cup
My little black angel
My little black angel as years roll by
I want you to fly with wings held high
I want you to live by the justice code
I want you to burn down freedom's road
My little black angel
Oh lie away, oh lie away asleeping
Lie away safe in my arms
Your father, your future protects you
And locks you safe from all harm
Little black angel I feel so glad
You'll never have things I never had
When out of men's hearts all hate has gone
It's better to die than forever live on
My little black angel...