The US is no country for old men

Elderly Americans struggle to survive in a country that seeks to extract profit from them till the very end.

FILE — An elderly man crosses the street toward City Hall, in this Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020 file photo, in Providence, R.I., where voters wait in line outside as early voting begins for the general election. Rhode Island is enjoying a census surprise: The state clung to enough of its population to retain both of its two seats in Congress. (AP Photo/David Goldman, file)
An elderly man crosses the street toward City Hall on October 14, 2020 in Providence, RI [File: AP/David Goldman]

Shortly prior to his death from prostate cancer in August of this year at the age of 72, my father emerged from a state of muteness to recite, with a burst of energy, the 1927 poem, Sailing to Byzantium, by William Butler Yeats, which begins: “That is no country for old men.”

My mother, my uncle, and I were present for the impromptu performance, which took place in my father’s bed in Washington, DC, where he had commenced in-home hospice care after the chemotherapy treatments that had been forced upon him by profit-oriented doctors had accelerated his demise.

This was but one of many poems my father had memorised as a young man intent on honing his intellectual credentials; my mother and uncle – who in their youth had also fallen under the influence of my dad’s cerebral pursuits – joined in on the lines they remembered. Having completed his vehement recitation, my father resumed his generally mute state, which was thereafter punctuated only by intermittent outbursts about wanting to die.

I have no way of knowing what was going through my dad’s mind during that final poetic eruption, but the first line of the Yeats poem did seem to be a fitting commentary on the country in which we found ourselves – the one where we had all been born and the one my parents and I had spent years avoiding. My mom and dad had only relatively recently returned to reside in the homeland after nearly eight years in Barcelona; I had flown into Washington in August from Turkey, which was one of my regular stops in a 20-year self-imposed exile.

Indeed, my father’s final months had merely confirmed that the US is “no country for old men”. Counterproductive chemotherapy treatments were but one of the ways he had been milked for all he was worth, before being turned over as prey to the lucrative realm of funeral and cremation services.

For example, for a one-month prescription of the prostate cancer drug Xtandi, a medication developed with none other than US taxpayer money, my father had been charged $14,579.01 – ie, more than many people in the United States earn in several months. For folks lacking the means to pursue healthcare and other basic needs, US capitalism can be deadly, too.

And while US society specialises in oppressing a wide range of demographics – minus, of course, the elite minority that thrives on acute inequality – the treatment of the elderly is particularly cynical. Having outlived their labour-based exploitability as cogs in the capitalist machine, older people become decaying objects from which profit must continue to be extracted until the very last minute.

According to the results of a West Health-Gallup survey published in 2022, approximately one in four Americans aged 65 and older and three in 10 Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 said they had sacrificed basic needs, such as food, to pay for healthcare.

The study found that older women and Black Americans were disproportionately affected and that punitive health care costs constituted a significant source of stress in the daily lives of older Americans, with stress naturally only exacerbating existing medical issues.

Add vampire-like insurance companies to the mix, and the panorama becomes ever more morbid. The prohibitive fees associated with many programmes – coupled with insurance outfits’ frequent refusal to cover lifesaving treatments – means that life itself continues to be a privilege and not a right in the United States.

Then there’s the $34bn assisted-living industry, which a recent Washington Post investigation revealed to be plagued by wanton neglect despite charging an average of $6,000 a month per resident. Since 2018, the Post reported, more than 2,000 residents have wandered off unnoticed from such facilities, and nearly 100 of them have died after doing so.

So much for “assisted living”.

To be sure, the loneliness and isolation that so often attends old age in the US does nothing to increase life expectancy; nor does the unique stigma that US “culture” attaches to ageing. As the American Psychological Association (APA) has noted, institutionalised ageism in the United States entails a “host of negative effects, for people’s physical and mental wellbeing and society as a whole”.

Granted, loneliness and isolation are often lifelong afflictions for inhabitants of the so-called “land of the free”, where the collective mental wellbeing is hardly helped by a dog-eat-dog insistence on individual success at the expense of communal and family bonds and the conversion of human beings into consumerist automatons.

And the cutthroat, transactional nature of existence in the US culminates, appropriately, with elderly bodies being put up for grabs by pharmaceutical companies, nursing homes, and the corporate racket known as the US healthcare system.

That said, the US is, in fact, a fine country for some old men – such as former warmongering diplomat Henry Kissinger, who perished at home in Connecticut in November at the ripe old age of 100 after spending a good part of his life causing the deaths of countless people worldwide.

Not long after my father’s death in August, I fell into conversation with a Bolivian man in his 50s who had resided in Washington for more than two decades and who expanded on the “no country” theme. He planned to stick it out for another 10 to 15 years before returning to his home city of Cochabamba, he told me, because he couldn’t afford to be old in the US.

And while the US may be “no country for old men”, it’s not much of a country for anyone else, either.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.