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A Case for Ageism
In Dissent, Number One Hundred and Twenty-Four
by Brian S. Wise
22 July 2003Heart Rate

Regarding old age, it is best (if not always kind) to know when to say "No."

From Reuters, last Saturday: “Fancy living another 100 years or more?”  Hell no!  I can barely muster the enthusiasm to function usefully for another 12 months, much less 100 years.  “Some experts said on Saturday that scientific advances will one day enable humans to last decades beyond what is now seen as the natural limit of the human life span.”  What sort of experts are we talking about?  Montclair State business professor Michael Zey, who has written two books about the future (hey, hey!), speaking at the annual conference of the World Future Society (a group that “ponders how the future will look across different aspects of society”):  “I think we are knocking on the door of immortality.  I think by 2075 we will see it and that’s a conservative estimate.”
Oh, okay, so no one important.  Without having intimate knowledge of the group or its members, the educated guess here is that these are people who one day swore to rule the civilized world over a game of Dungeons and Dragons.  But still.  Here is a slightly more credible sounding voice on the matter (in the comical sense, as nothing about the idea is credible), Donald Louria, a professor at New Jersey Medical School, Newark: “There is a dramatic and intensive push so that people can live from 120 to 180 years.  Some have suggested that there is no limit and that people could live to 200 or 300 or 500 years.”
Whoa, slow down there, Dexter.  Heed Leonard Poon, director of the University of Georgia Gerontology Center: “It remains to be seen if you pass the threshold of say 120, you know; could you be healthy enough to have good quality of life?  Currently people who could get to that point are not in good health at all.”  Which gets us around to a significant point, that just because science thinks something is possible does not necessarily mean the goal is worthwhile or practical, and should therefore be pursued with reckless abandon.
And the devastating proof lies in the right foot of Russell Weller, 86, who last week mistook his gas pedal for his break pedal, tearing through a farmers market on Arizona Avenue in Santa Monica.  Weller’s lack of appropriate motor skills and comprehension meant that, when he finally came to a stop three blocks later, he had killed 10 (including a seven-month-old baby) and injured 50, the speculation now being that at the time of this incident, Weller may have been fleeing the scene of another accident he had caused just a block before the market.  Said California Highway Patrol spokesman Tom Marshall: “We’re trying to do two things: determine first of all that he hit the Mercedes, and two, what his motivation was for leaving if he did hit it.  He could have been confused, he could have been scared and tried to get away, we just don’t know at this point."
Right.  The point is not only the quality of life for the aged, but the quality of life for those around them.  The odds of bystanders being harmed exponentially rise as older and older people are treated as though they deserve the same privileges and considerations as someone 40 years their junior.  There does not exist one good reason why Russell Weller should have been allowed a driver’s license, other than no one ever thought enough to put into motion an apparatus that would have said “No.”
There are remedies but things get in the way, namely money and senior citizens lobbying organizations.  It is wise for anyone over a certain age (and for that matter, anyone under another age) to have their driving skills tested once every six months, meaning whenever there is a change from fair weather to winter weather and back again.  The point is that in older life, singular incidents (mostly medical) can suddenly inhibit the ability to drive more than in younger life.
Now, before you write and ask whether or not there should be a rise in the mandatory minimum age for obtaining a driver’s license, the answer is yes; from 16 for a license to 17 ½ for a permit and 18 for a license.  But a teen’s driving skills will improve with age, a senior citizen’s will not.  Driving is a privilege, not an inalienable right (hear that, Sultaana Freeman?), and when one’s abilities come to fail him, a certain ageism should enter into the picture, allowing society to apply the brakes (as it were).

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