Of “Being Mortal,’ old crocks and Keith Richards still standing — sort of

“Hope I die before I get old” —  The Who “My Generation.” Released 1965

“What a drag it is getting old” — The Rolling Stones “Mother’s Little Helper.” Released 1966

During my recent perusal of YouTube, I have come upon videos of Bruce Springsteen falling onstage and needing two roadies to pick him up and get him upright … Joni Mitchell, minus her former lilting voice, singing onstage with a cane … and Elton John riding a contraption that looks like one of those stair lifts across the stage. How our rock ’n’ roll gods have aged!

Pete Townshend of The Who is out promoting a new stage version of the rock opera, “Tommy.” That album came out in 1969. Townshend, of course, is not performing in the production. His arm is probably too stiff and arthritic to do his trademark windmill move or smash his guitars to bits.

Mick Jagger is still strutting around like a deeply wrinkled peacock. Most of his original Rolling Stones bandmates are long retired or deceased. Peter Frampton has to remain seated onstage when he performs. Do we feel like he does?

“Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande is the St. Joseph County Public Library’s 2024 One Book One Michiana selection. It is an eye-opening and sobering read. During the past century, humans have discovered ways to increase life expectancy, but Dr. Gawande makes the argument that doctors have not figured out how to handle end of life with grace and dignity.

Medical professionals want to diagnose, do surgery, and cure. Geriatricians, who are trained to deal with the elderly, are in short supply, probably because they are not compensated as well as other medical professionals. Plus, it’s probably not an easy job dealing with “The Old Crocks” as one geriatrician calls them in Dr. Gawande’s book.

The rise of assisted living centers and nursing homes, where many of the elderly are warehoused, is an imperfect and outrageously expensive system at best. For many, they are places where people go to die. Like with so many other businesses (hospitals, college student housing, newspapers, and retailers), these group homes are being vacuumed up by private equity firms whose goal it is to maximize profit and get return on investments. Great care for their residents is an afterthought.

Statistics show that many people spend a good chunk of their savings very late in their lives on medical treatments, only to gain a few weeks or months. Adult children struggle to find what is best for their aging and sometimes ailing parents. Most older adults would like to remain in their homes. In-home care is expensive and not covered by most insurance. Bringing an elderly parent into a relative’s home can cause stress and conflict.

How can society handle aging more gracefully? “Being Mortal” is a good conversation starter. 

The aging rock musicians I am watching on YouTube probably are wealthy enough not to have to worry about how or where they will spend their remaining years. Perhaps they are in bad shape after living on the road and indulging in the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. Elton John certainly did his best (worst?) to shorten his lifespan, but he’s still standing, albeit a little wobbly. How Keith Richards has evaded the Grim Reaper will be studied in medical schools for decades, if and when he dies, and if they get access to his cadaver.

 Maybe these musicians have something to teach us in their dotage. As long as they are alive, their creative sides need an outlet. I can’t look away.

What memories, gifts, and ideas do the elderly among us have still to share? Are we able to listen to them, even in their “old crock” moments? 

I’ll give Irish poet Dylan Thomas (who lived to the ripe old age of 39) the final say: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at the close of day. Rage rage against the dying of the light.”