Chapter 18: Man Cannot Live by Bread Alone

“Let us read and let us dance – two amusements that will never do any harm to the world”

If you’ve been following Zoomer Philosophy, you’ll know that from the outset I’ve considered it important to counteract the endemic Image of Aging as a story defined by decline, desperation and death. Instead, I’ve tried to bring forward the New Reality of Aging in the 21st century: namely, that we’re generally living longer (in many cases, much longer) and staying healthier longer, with an unprecedented quality of life that allows most of us to be active and productive and, therefore, comfortable, even happy, with advancing years. But while it’s vital for society that we oppose the clichéd monolithic and negative notion of “old,” it’s also important to face realities.

Fact is, precisely because Boomers constituted and remain the largest generation on record and, despite all the advances in medicine, education, nutrition and lifestyle that allow more of us to thrive than ever before, Our Gang will also be afflicted by the traditional problems of aging in record numbers. For instance, this year alone, more than 100,000 Canadians, the vast majority over 60, will develop dementia; in 25 years, the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease and related ailments will exceed a million.1 About one and a half million of us today suffer osteoporosis, the bone-thinning condition that dramatically increases the likelihood of fractures; in the near future, three million more2 (our demo again) stand a good chance of being affected. According to another recent study, the number of annual cancer diagnoses in British Columbia will increase by 50 per cent in the next 25 years3 (projections for Canada are similar), again with our demographic leading the way. In addition, by the year 2030, the need for joint replacements in North America – including joint revisions, in which previous replacements need to be redone, a function of an aging population – is projected to increase by factors ranging from 174 per cent (hip replacements) to 673 per cent (knee replacements).4 It’s no wonder that health-care costs are expected to rise to almost 60 per cent of all provincial budgets in Canada by 20255 and that the need for long-term care nursing homes is expected to outstrip even that spiral.

Given all this, how can any government contemplate investing money in anything but the Health of its People? Or how about an individual “of a certain age” who’s thinking of making a charitable donation? Self-interest would suggest that virtually all such donations would be directed at specific or general health-care areas. Our reputation as “the most selfish generation” would seem to ensure the trend. But this does not turn out to be the case!

Just as humankind has always found both the opportunity and the resources to beautify our surroundings, expound on the meaning of life or sit outside on a summer day, enjoying a drink and listening to music, so have aging Canadians chosen to not simply direct their volunteerism and financial support to institutions and research concerned with our physical well-being but to those that address our metaphysical health as well. We do this by supporting Culture and the Arts, as never before.

Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle noted recently that the Cultural Sector in Canada now employs approximately 600,000 people, more than the forestry and banking industries combined. He went on to cite surveys that reported that in the year 2005, “two-thirds of Canadians read a book (66.6 per cent), one in two attended a performance by professional artists or a cultural festival (48.8 per cent), and one in four visited an art gallery (26.7 per cent). In 2008, Canadians spent more than twice as much on live performing arts ($1.4 billion) than on sports events ($0.65 billion).”

What’s hidden in this breakdown is the fact that it’s largely Zoomer-driven. Zoomers account for more than half the audience for virtually all performing arts: 70 per cent of all classical music concert attendance, approximately 60 per cent of all live theatre attendance and 55 per cent of all attendance at operas. These days, Zoomers are leading the Arts and Culture charge not simply by providing the audience that’s filling the halls but by sitting on the boards of these institutions and endowing them financially. While overall charitable donations in Canada have dropped since 2007 – the fallout of the financial crisis – the number of private foundations has continued to increase steadily. The total has more than doubled in the last seven years, now holding some $12 billion in assets.

A while ago, I read a newspaper article about an aging man who had suffered a series of cardiac setbacks and who was asked by his family to outline his DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) instructions for the future. “If I can eat a hamburger and watch football,” the man said, “bring me back. If not, let me go.” If for “watch football,” you substitute “listen to music” or “see a play” or “read a book” or “paint” or “dance” or “look at nature”, then the wisdom of his instruction becomes clear. Physical health is of core importance, but there has to be a reason for it, beyond our simple reflex to keep breathing. We crave health not only so that we can avoid pain but also so that we can enjoy the immense beauty the world has to offer. That Pleasure, that Beauty is the province of Culture and is a large part of what makes “Life worth living.” If a hospital can give us a modus vivendi (a way to live), a Bach concerto can give us a causa vivo (a reason to live). In supporting both modus and causa, we address two of the great natural needs all humans share.

The two needs are linked. We know what happens to the physical health of a population when the freedom to express, to oppose, to create is curtailed. In totalitarian regimes, life expectancies tend to be lower compared to democracies, and suicide rates higher. The process works in the other direction, as well. Art therapy has been shown to reduce depression in people suffering from such disorders and to dramatically reduce symptoms associated with pain and anxiety in cancer patients. Music therapy is recognized as one of the few things that can help sufferers of advanced Alzheimer’s to express themselves and may even slow the deterioration in physical and mental processes characterized by dementia. Even with the loss of speech in Alzheimer’s patients, musical abilities are often “relatively unaffected.”

So why is it that any time that budgets are strained, the men and women of money go first after the things that actually make life worth living? For example, in Toronto, a cost-cutting exercise is currently targeting “Cultural Services such as Art, Events and Heritage Programming.”

I admire how writer Andrew Klavan put it recently in the National Post: “What I really care about now is the immortal parts of mortal enterprise. The irrelevant, the stuff that doesn’t matter but is simply beautiful – the music, the poetry, the pictures and storytelling – the arts – that’s where all the joy is and it’s joy that seems more urgent to us as the years pass.”

The expression “Man does not live by bread alone” is often attributed to Jesus (Matthew 4:4), but knowledgeable rabbi that he was, Jesus was actually paraphrasing an Old Testament passage (Deuteronomy 8: 2-3). “… And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna … that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” If, at our time of life, we are closer to “what comes from the mouth of the Lord,” then maybe it’s a good time for us to start thinking about what also lies Beyond Bread. Education, Entertainment, Culture, Nature, these are the things that make life worthwhile. As that guy from the newspaper story pointed out, they’re even worth coming back from the dead for. Football, included.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.