Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel: Open Mouth, Insert Foot

September 24, 2014
Laura Beck, The Eden Alternative

Zeke_Emanuel_Amherst

A doctor noted for his role as a key architect of President Obama’s healthcare reform reminded us just how narrow the lens of the medical model is when it comes to aging.  In an article posted this morning in the International Business Times, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel stated that living past 75 is highly overrated, because living too long is “a loss.”  Emanuel digs an even deeper hole by saying:

It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived.  It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

Wow.  The only thing I find “feeble” and “pathetic” are Dr. Emanuel’s profoundly ageist remarks. What’s even more disturbing is knowing, all too well, the punch delivered by the word of a renowned doctor.  I shudder, when I think of the impact these words might have on the efforts of change agents who are committed to painting a different image of older life; or worse, the Elder who is already prejudiced against herself and the possibility that she has something uniquely meaningful to offer.

After catching this piece while scrolling through Google News, I sought out Dr. Emanuel’s original article in The AtlanticHere Dr. Emanuel drivels on for pages, making his case with charts and graphs based on declinist arguments for why there’s no point in existing past 75.  He goes on to illustrate the financial burden we create as we age and manages to drop-kick any source of meaning or purpose in one’s life that falls short of mainstream displays of ambition:

We don’t notice that we are aspiring to and doing less and less. And so we remain content, but the canvas is now tiny. The American immortal, once a vital figure in his or her profession and community, is happy to cultivate avocational interests, to take up bird watching, bicycle riding, pottery, and the like. And then, as walking becomes harder and the pain of arthritis limits the fingers’ mobility, life comes to center around sitting in the den reading or listening to books on tape and doing crossword puzzles.

Who are you, Dr. Emanuel, to belittle what feeds the soul of another human being at any phase of life?  Whether I choose to simply read, do pottery, or pole dance after 75 is not for you to measure, assess, or assign value to.  While you may bow at the altar of all things DOING, I am inspired and humbled at the feet of an Elder who knows how and when to simply BE.  While you ramble on about the waste that is Alzheimer’s disease and note that we “lose our creativity” past a certain age, I’ll say that some of the most transcendent moments in my life have occurred in the presence of a frail elder living with dementia.  These experiences, all powerfully “creative,” transformed me as a human being and urged me to grow in ways I never thought possible.  Had my life not been touched by these Elders – all well past the age of 75 — I would not be who I am today.

Maybe you are on to something, Dr. Emanuel… the loss of hope that arises when we just can’t think outside the box.  If my thinking was as limited as yours, I, too, might say, “Why bother?”

23 Comments. Leave new

Laura, I am in agreement with you. As a 78 year old who feels 30 inside, I am the opposite of enfeebled. I have been more empowered, joyful and full of enthusiasm since I turned 70 than ever before in my life. I have found the 70’s simply magnificent. I contribute to my wife, to my children, to the group of 120 in my Landmark Seminar and to the world by writing a book on the joys of becoming an Elder.

It is indeed unfortunate that a physician-of-repute should take such a puny stand. Instead, he should be lauding Elder as the necessary… and best… third stage of life. Harvey W. Austin MD

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Laura Beck, The Eden Alternative
September 24, 2014 12:14 pm

Thank you, Harvey… your comments are priceless.

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How eloquent you are, Laura. Your response was perfection. I will go out on a limb and estimate that the “good” doctor is certainly in his 5th decade of life and soon to be in his 6th. If he is fortunate enough to reach his 7th decade I suspect he will be grateful beyond words for a culture change movement that will speak and act on his behalf. He will come to realize the foolishness of his “youth”. It is my hope that he will undergo a personal transformation and become an advocate for Elders of all ages.

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Thank you for finding this article and an even bigger thanks for your fiery response. I hope that you are not a lone voice and that many others will chime in with similar sentiments. We have the baby boomers hitting age 65 in record numbers every day and will have record numbers of elders living with us over the coming decades. Are we telling them that they all have basically 10 more good years left and then hang it up????? It is really shocking to hear this pessimistic, ageist view from one of the architects of the new health care system currently being implemented in our country. Does this hint at how elders will be treated in the new system going forward? I certainly hope not, but we need to speak up against his type of thinking now or face a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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It’s the death panel incarnate!

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Kavan Peterson, Editor, ChangingAging.org
September 24, 2014 3:01 pm

This reminds me of a letter-to-the-editor sent to The New Republic by Ray Bradbury. Ray was responding to an article the magazine published with glaring parallels to Dr. Emanuel’s piece. In this case the author made a similarly demeaning and diminishing argument that old people have so little value to society they should not be allowed to vote. Bradbury, age 50 at the time, penned a response that is quite à propos today:

Sirs: I am much in your debt for publishing the brilliant article by Douglas J. Stewart. Taking the vote away from old people is great. But, may I suggest an even better alternative? Let us build ovens and gas chambers and really do the job right. The people can be carted from all over the country, once they are old enough, and, before entering the gas chambers and ovens, have the best dentists pull out their gold teeth. A few soap factories might also be built in the vicinity and the best place for the ovens would be Orange County where more old reactionary Wasps reside. There is a danger here; there are quite a few liberal old people about, and we must be careful not to put Marcuse or anyone like him in the ovens. Other than that, the plan is beautiful and I hope Mr. Stewart will join me in this great improvement on American democracy. We can call it the Nazi Party, if he feels that is a good name.

I have other plans for cripples, the blind, and the Jews, if Mr. Stewart wishes to hear them. Meanwhile, onward and upward. Let’s get that vote, first, and then the life of the Voter!

Ray Bradbury

Los Angeles, Calif.

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Thanks for the forward. Will pass it along to many of my really young (old) friends. Maybe we could take up knitting………

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I give you a standing O Laura Beck! Dr. Emanuel is clearly stuck in the cult of adulthood. Fortunately, the shear numbers of people already enjoying a life worth living in that age bracket prove him dreadfully wrong! We must interview him on this theory when he turns 75!

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Thank you, Laura, for answering this true! It’s a shame he doesn’t know what life can truly be at any age, with eyes that are open and seeing in a different way.I wonder how he will see life at 76 and 86 and 96 should he live those years. . .

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Dearest Laura, you are a shining light and thank you for bringing this particular article to the top of the rubbish pile. You know that we’re in for a ‘fight’ when we have medicos who have decided that living past 75 is a waste of time, money & resources; that older people are not much use for anything.

Well we’re here to say, “Sorry, don’t agree with you Dr Ezekiel Emanuel’. We know and have experienced great things from our elders. The longer elders live, the more they teach us. Older people (the baby boomers are coming) are not a ‘grey tsunami’ or bed blockers nor a waste of time…these are people who do matter. It’s a thin edge of a wedge…and we need to educate, educate, educate about an alternative to living a life that has meaning.

I look at my family who are in their early to late 70’s and think, ‘according to the good doctor, they should be put onto the scrap heap’. Wrong on many counts – they live independently, full and fabulous lives. They pave a path of opportunity which leave me optimistic for my own future health and wellbeing.

Our society in general, is strong on ageism…and youthful adults ‘reign’ supreme…or so they think. One day they’ll realise that all that perceived power is really not worth anything if we don’t have a humanitarian and inclusive approach to our aging population.

We need to raise the discussion and not have any government determine our use by date.

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Nice response, Laura. Hope it gets to the “powers that be.” I wonder if he’ll feel the same way when he turns 75…

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Great post Laura! I absolutely agree….in particular with the ideas that there is tremendous value in being – and that elders have tremendous wisdom to share with the rest of us. That said disabled and faltering after 75? Really? Perhaps he should spend some time with Sonny the 70 year old body builder….. https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10152248968353869&set=vb.8701278868&type=2&theater

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Carol S. Carter
September 25, 2014 3:35 am

Bravo, Laura!

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Thank you Laura, for writing such a passionate and right-on-the-mark response! Maybe we should get a letter writing campaign from Elders going!

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WOW is that what happens in his world/work. I wouldn’t want to be looked after by him. His comments made me actually think deep and hard. And yes there might be homes out there where our elders might agree with him (sadly to say) . “We reap what we sow”. This saddens my heart as I am working for 75 elders and they are maintaining their independance better than most abled population. They continue to give back to the community more than most of the population. They are full of knowledge and wisdom which our youngsters require because our middle age are busy earning money. Our elders are contributing towards our future, long after they leave this earth. Peherps this Doctor needs to be introduced tothe Eden Alternative PRONTO.

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old Dr. E. is an idiot!!…I’m 9 years from 75, way older then the idiot…Obummer and his minions want us to start thinking about packing it in at 75, so we can make room for more idiots to vote for more of this crap….They must of read the or seen the movie, “Soilent Green”…I vote for Dr. Emanuel to be first in line for the people scoops…..excuse me, now I think, I’ll go saddle my horse or suit up and go for a ride on my motorcycle….take that Dr. E….you have the nerve to call yourself a doctor…remember, ” first do no harm”

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Yes! Laura you said it all perfectly. I am so aghast at his words. I truly hope he does not die before 75 and lives a creative, loving and happy 25 more years and realizes he needs to eat his younger self’s idiotic words.

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Laura, thanks for bringing this to light and I am glad that we are outraged (and i felt my blood pressure rise quite a bit LOL). I am doubly glad that we have the antidote to that kind of thinking with the Eden Alternative. Without it we could never win!

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Laura, I’m so glad you caught this article and that is did not go quietly into the night! This individual is designing national healthcare policy. Oh my gosh, who made that appointment? His comments are so contradictory to what I believe, I was flabbergasted reading it. Then I joined some good people from our church for dinner who, upon learning what my work is focused on, spent several minutes making jokes about aging and how much they are not looking forward to it. Wow! We all have a long way to go in bringing Elderhood to life. It is a powerful vision that we need to be out there talking about all day, every day, otherwise I’m concerned that national policy will cause us all to unnaturally shorten our lives for the greater good. Let’s rally the Tribes of Eden!

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Of Dr E’s article – in the words of my wonderful, mischievous, totally attractive (tho slightly deaf) 94 year old still-singing father-in-law, in his lovely Scottish accent: ‘Ach, that’s ridiculous.’

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Laura,

I am an AGNG 200 student at the Erickson School of Aging. I agree with your point that elders can have a profound and positive impact on the lives of younger generations. The philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, noted that one’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others by means of love and friendship. This is certainly something that many elders are capable of doing past the age of 75 (Moody & Sasser, 2012).

References

Moody, R. H., & Sasser, R. J. (2012). Aging concepts and controversies (7th ed.).
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

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E. Emanuel appears to be campaigning for the role of leader in the “Cult of Adulthood” Bill Thomas wrote “Adulthood keeps people away from the richness of old age in much the same way that medieval cartographers warned travelers away from the edge of the world” (Thomas, 2004). When I originally read WHAT ARE OLD PEOPLE FOR?, I was a little puzzled about an entire section on the Tragedy of “the cult of adulthood.” Now I get it!

I so enjoy my senior-hood–not yet 75, but headed that way.

Reference:

Thomas, W. H. (2004). What are old people for? How elders will save the world. Acton MA: VanderWyk & Burnham.

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