As a baby boomer demographic expert, I know the statistics. You name it. Boomers aren't ready for it. For years, we have been in denial about aging. And who wouldn't be? Expecting to reap the rewards of the longevity bonus, this is a generation that has had better health, education and earnings than any cohort of mature adults in history.
In an ageist society that reveres youth and reviles age, doesn't it make sense to delay or avoid dealing with the shadow stuff like illness, loss and death as long as possible? We have avoided planning for the possibility that we will someday need to pay for expensive long-term care. We haven't retained financial planners to help us prepare for the future. We haven't wanted to deal with the fact that down the road we might develop a health issue that will turn the retirement condo with three flights of stairs into a nightmare. Many of us had been counting on raking in salaries forever; others depend on our children to take care of us.
Trapped somewhere in the eternal youth of unrealistic optimism, it is not a pretty thing to watch when one by one, boomers ultimately are jolted awake by circumstances beyond their control. Your blood pressure is up or your back goes out. Your most reliable child is unemployed. The inheritance you depended upon went to pay for assisted living. Your boss has replaced you with someone younger. Denial flips into dread, anxiety or despair: equally debilitating and not nearly as pleasant. Clearly, there is not only a price to be paid for having turned our backs on ultimate concerns, but the avoidance of both psychological and spiritual preparation for our inevitable confrontation with the frailty of our illusions. When we do wake up, we are overcome with paralyzing anxiety about nearly everything. We wonder if it's too late to make amends, and what is to become of us.
Existential philosophers theorize the true roots of our anxiety as we age -- be it about how our children are faring, how we are to make ends meet or whether we will stay healthy -- stem from a deeper and more universal source than we'd normally ascribe. In a nutshell, it is our anxiety about nothingness -- most pertinently fears about the extinction of our existence at the end of life -- that attaches itself to something over which we at least have the illusion of control: anxiety about something. Anything, in fact.
Anxiety about our adult children and grandchildren, for instance, may seem to be about whether they're financially stable, doing well in school or getting involved in drugs. There is, of course, a degree of concern that is normal and natural in regards to our feelings about those for whom we care. But there is also an excessive, irrational expression of anxiety that finds its roots in our aspirations for immortality through our offspring, representing an antidote to our fear of death. Paralyzing anxieties about our financial futures can be traced to similar roots: Do we resist budgeting now as part of planning for the future because in doing so, we are forced to confront the finitude of our lives? And do we have trouble making choices, let alone commitments, because in doing so, we view our life as one of diminishing rather than expanding possibilities?
Of course, the antidote is not to live our lives in gothic morbidity. But why wake up at all? Because you can only be fully alive to the degree to which you are willing to be confronted by the enormity of existence. In his book "Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Dread of Death" (Piatkus, 2008) psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom, inspired by Nietzsche, instructs that "To become wise you must learn to listen to the wild dogs barking in your cellar."
Life is mysterious, awe-some and awe-ful, all at once. It is imperative upon each of us who aspires to live deep, strong and full that we free ourselves from futile resistance to the shadow side of the passing of time to instead become fierce with age. Even within our limitations -- or more to the point, because of them -- we can aspire to operate to the best of our abilities. Short of this, our everyday anxieties keep us flailing at the surface of things, whipped here and there by deeper currents we do not even know have us in their grip or worse, freezing us into passive victimhood caught in the blinding lights of denial.
Yes, the wild dogs are barking in the basement and we may have missed our window of opportunity to get long-term care insurance at the best price. But when it comes to matters of ultimate concern, it's not too late.