I used to be baffled by the hype about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. I assumed the movies and books were designed for adolescent girls and as someone in middle-age, there seemed not one good reason to read about vampires and those who love them. After prodding from several (albeit younger) Twilight fans, I read the series and understood that this particular vampire story has a lot to offer regarding the power of love to ward off anxiety about death and aging. In my view, the Twilight stories remind us that all we have is the here-and-now. Without love life is pretty meaningless, even if you are a vampire and can live forever. The following is an excerpt from my chapter, Transcendence and Twilight: The Faith in Love, in the recently published The Psychology of Twilight, Smart Pop Books/Benbella (2011).
However you feel about the Occupy Wall Street protestors, it's clear that many boomers don’t get the outrage. Paul Campos of The Daily Beast offers a remarkably clear analysis of why. Campos describes that professional boomers had a very different experience than younger people of today. He cites the high cost of education and more ominously, the difficulty procuring employment for younger professionals who are saddled with large amounts of debt. And in the most pointed piece of criticism he says, “A lot of boomers have become insufferably smug and complacent.” Ouch. It was easier for boomers to become successful professionals.
Though my best writing is often not found in the form of blogs that provide mandates on easy behavioral changes—meaning articles like “how to transform your life in 7 easy steps” or “how to spice up your marriage in 3 simple ways,” I came across a very moving article that suggests a thought and behavioral experiment designed to encourage people to live in the moment. The author of that article, Keith Ablow, has been in the news lately and not in a good way. You may remember that he did more than simply raise eyebrows when he made insensitive and inappropriate comments regarding “Dancing With The Stars” contestant Chaz Bono. Before I go on, let me be clear. I do not support Dr. Ablow’s comments about this topic and found them offensive and just plain wrong on every conceivable level. See this article by my colleague Diane Ehrensaft, who refutes Ablow’s comments. In the spirit of not throwing the baby out with the bath water, however, Ablow’s article, Why Denying Death Means Denying Life, points out the ways that the fear of death keeps us from actually living. He says:
Many of us are concerned about how to protect ourselves from disease. Are there things we can do to ameliorate the role genetics play in the development of illness? The answer may be yes. A study reported in Scientific American offers hope about the control we have when it comes to fighting heart disease. The authors of the study report that those who had a genetic marker for heart disease had a lower risk of illness when they consumed fruits, raw vegetables and nuts. Indeed, others have speculated that what we do behaviorally can impact whether or not our genetic predispositions lead to illness. Regarding diet and other illnesses, another recent study found that breast cancer cells were less likely to grow in the presence of resveratrol, one of the substances found in red wine. Keep in mind this latter study involved breast cancer cells in a petri dish and not actual people. Nevertheless, there is evidence that we can help our bodies prevent disease by eating healthy and nutritious foods. Maybe, the old saying, we are what we eat has some truth.
Medicare cuts are in the news again. Medicare payments are slated to be decreased in January, and the anxiety is already mounting. According to KUT news (a part of the npr digital network), one-half of doctors in Texas have said they will stop taking Medicare if the cuts are enacted. Though this is alarming news, it is not necessarily surprising. Doctors have been quietly ceasing to accept Medicare for some time now, in large part due to the threat of cuts to the nationwide program for people over sixty-five. Medicare rates have already been reduced, though it is unclear how much so per specialty. In my own field, Medicare reimbursement rates have dropped almost 20% since I entered the field in the 1990’s.
This week I read one of the most interesting pieces of literary journalism I have come across in a while. Lisa Miller published an article in New York Magazine about people who have children at advanced ages—meaning people in the fifth decade of life. The article raises a number of concerns about the uses of medical technology employed to have a baby later in life. As I have written about here and elsewhere, medical technology can seduce us into believing that we do not have limits. Although Miller’s piece raises a number of important controversies about having children later in life, I was reminded of an issue rarely discussed in the coverage of assisted reproductive technology and the media in general, that of women and men who decide they do not want children. The hype about having babies often misses the fact that people are increasingly choosing not to have children.
A recent report on Examiner.com demonstrates the muddled reality of aging. Boomers report feeling younger than they actually are, but at the same time report difficulties of aging and illness. If you are feeling confused, don’t worry. It’s complicated; but then so are the dynamics of denial. Consider this conflicting statement: “The comparative data shows that the notion that Boomers feel seven years younger than their age has been consistent since 1993. What’s grown worse is their view of their own health, which can be expected given the 18 years. In 1963, 64 percent saw themselves as being in very good/excellent health. That declined to 58 percent in 2003.” Though the idea that one can feel young and sick seems contradictory, one possibility is that people who are ill are coping exceptionally well with their disease. Another idea is that some Boomers are in denial about aging. This second hypothesis may have some traction.
Although people can flourish as they get older, aging is difficult and requires us to manage a number of blows regarding the ways our bodies change and let us down. Among these difficulties are alterations in physical appearance, a feeling of less control over our bodies, susceptibility to injury and illness, and an increase in physical pain. Aging and illness requires us to manage a number of hits to self-esteem. As we get older most of us have to deal with the narcissistic injury of having bodies that don’t work as well as we would like. Narcissism can be viewed as a negative word in psychology and psychoanalytic theories. 9See this Psych Central page for a description of excessive narcissism.) However, narcissism not only has normal and developmental underpinnings, some level of narcissistic defenses (not when narcissism is a personality disorder) are crucial to our being able to manage a number of stresses and disappointments in life. Even Freud (1917) implied that there is normal and excessive narcissism. Kohut took this many steps further, however, and questioned whether narcissism is fundamentally pathological. Among the many things he said, one of the most important is that it may not be so unusual for us to want to be loved and admired.
A press release on 9-22-11 reports that older women are more likely to die of breast cancer. This finding may not be so surprising as age can be a factor in the outcome of many diseases, including cancer. The finding is striking however, because at least some older women are not receiving the same care as those who are younger. The research team led by Professor Christos Markopoulos noted that they “observed that radiotherapy was administered less frequently and administration of chemotherapy sharply decreased with increasing age. Thus, it is most likely that under-treatment of the elderly may explain the worse age-specific breast cancer outcome found in our study." Others have found similar results when looking at women being treated for breast cancer. It’s hard to know exactly how to interpret these studies. Breast cancer is a complicated disease and a number of factors can impact prognosis. Additionally, age and co-existing medical conditions can make certain treatments more risky in the elderly. I certainly do not know as much as oncologists who make treatment decisions on a regular basis. On the other hand, I am aware that many cancer trials exclude elderly patients.
In my last article, I talked about some common ways loved ones are not as helpful as they could be when talking about illness. Although I previously emphasized illnesses that may be hard to notice, anyone with a visible chronic disease knows all too well that communication can falter among well-meaning friends and family. In this post, I will address some more common pitfalls and why they occur. Friends and family are often terrified by severe illnesses, especially when they occur in younger adults, and though they might want to be helpful, they often don’t know what to say. When people feel helpless platitudes can be common. Who wants to hear friends say such things as, “Well it could be worse, right?” (Often the answer is, “Not really”), or “Illness is a gift; you can learn a lot from it.” (And the answer is, “Maybe, but it’s a gift I don’t want.”)