MAXWELL:  Old enough to subscribe to mortality

2/9/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Am I really becoming an old man? I am not referring to my chronological age _ 51 _ as much as I am to the meaning of old age in a society obsessed with youth. I am writing about old age because I have just read the lastest issue of the AARP Bulletin, the monthly tabloid of the American Association of Retired Persons. It is a potpourri of useful information, practical advice and no-nonsense advertisements.

But for me, no matter how slick its design, the paper conjures up the image of that cloaked human figure holding a scythe, making my heart pound irregularly and elevating my systolic and diastolic numbers.

The front page hits me with the headline, “Capitol Hill moving to doctor Medicare.” The word “doctor” always makes me sit up straight in my rocker, and “Medicare” always depresses me. Medicare is the federal program that finances medical care for 33-million Americans 65 and older and for the disabled.

Overall, the article attempts to be positive, but Dave Clark’s accompanying cartoon paints a grim picture: The Democrat’s donkey and the GOP’s elephant, dressed as physicians, are jocularly conferring. In the bed, which bears a sign reading “Medicare,” lies a frightened old man hooked up to feeding tubes and monitors. A thermometer is between his teeth and an ice bag is on his head.

Directly beneath the cartoon is this headline: “Scientists finding new ways to prevent, fight osteoporosis.” The first sentence reads, “Science is finding ways to combat osteoporosis, a painful condition that primarily afflicts older people, gradually weakening their bones _ and the quality of their lives.” I reread the words “painful,” “afflicts” and “weakening” and get a lump in my throat. I feel old age creeping up on me.

I touch my left wrist bone, wondering if that twinge I detect is imaginary. After seeing the term “dowager’s hump” in the next sentence, I quickly move to the next story, where this headline slaps me: “Disputed nursing “regs’ killed.” Need I say more?

Page 2, which sports a story titled “An ethicist’s view of “suicide’ ” certainly did not ease my mounting anxiety. After reading the sentence containing the phrase “constitutional right to hasten the death of terminally ill patients,” I flipped to an article about scam artists ripping off older people.

The scam, a telemarketing fraud requiring victims to fill out sweepstakes entries and send huge sums of money to total strangers, is so transparent that I wonder if aging causes us to lose our brain cells. Needless to say, the article depresses me even more.

Then, on Page 6, I see the smiling mug of Arnold Palmer, the Senior Skins biggest money winner. The balding golfer is hawking Rayovac Air 400 Premium Zinc Batteries. And what are these batteries used for? They power hearing aids. Not to worry, AARP members can save $3 on their purchases if they order from the AARP Pharmacy Service.

Page 9 is a real bummer. There, in the top left-hand corner, is a brand name that is synonymous with pain and infirmity: Dr. Scholl’s. I do not know whether or not Dr. Scholl is the name of a real person. Heck, the good doctor could be as fictitious as Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. What I do know is that the name makes me contemplate bunions.

The ad in question features leather shoes called “Men’s Feather Lite Leather Casuals.” These are not Bruno Maglis. I walk a couple of miles each day and have never had any problems _ until now. But after seeing this ad, I imagine my feet aching.

Could the AARP Bulletin be a tool of subliminal suggestion, like a movie screen flickering images that make you hungry or thirsty?

As much as the Dr. Scholl’s ad bothers me, nothing makes me feel as vulnerable as the ad for Electric Mobility, a New Jersey company that sells a motorized powerchair called the Rascal Scooter. The spread features an old fisherman sitting on his Rascal, happily dangling his pole in the water.

The ad offers 10 reasons for owning a Rascal. Because I am weight-conscious, the sixth entry catches my attention: “The Rascal is so powerful it can carry up to 450 pounds _ the highest capacity in the industry.” That is right: 450 pounds! From now on, I am going watch what I eat so as not to overload my Rascal _ in case I have to buy one.

The rest of the Bulletin contains pitches for health, life and mobile home insurance, electrically adjustable beds and come-ons for places such as Lakeland.

My favorite is the Burl Ives’ Gospel Music Treasury ad, featuring “30 songs of faith.” Burl Ives! I really am getting wrinkled.

Finally, I turn to the last page, where Dr. Benjamin Aaron, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at George Washington University Medical Center, is shown pointing a pen at a plastic model of the human heart. Aaron, the physician who removed the bullet that nearly killed President Reagan, is telling AARP members that we can save our hearts by avoiding tobacco, by losing and keeping off weight, by exercising and by using common sense.

But that artificial heart looks too darned real, making me acutely aware of my mortality. Perhaps that is what getting old really means _ staring our mortality dead in the eye. Perhaps the editors of the AARP Bulletin intend for us, the old folks, to ponder our mortality.