Livable Longevity: Remaking Survivorship in Old Age

Saturday, 21 July 2018: 13:30
Oral Presentation
Stephen KATZ, Department of Sociology, Trent University, Canada
This paper explores the relationship between biomedical life extension and the cultural field of longevity as a livable old age. As more older people are treated for health conditions that challenge the traditional limits of human life, new characterizations and expectations of surviving populations are emerging. The promise of longevity has deep historical roots in earlier ‘prolongation’ and ‘rejuvenation’ movements, as well as within science fiction and fantasy literature, and the utopian fascination with exotic centenarians. However, only in the last century between 1900 and 2000 has the dramatic increase in the human lifespan (by 30 years) invited new social interests, such as financial and insurance industries promoting ‘longevity products’ to avoid risks of ‘outliving’ assets, patient autonomy groups promoting ‘advanced healthcare planning’ and ethical self-determination, and retirement communities promoting lifestyles in heavenly after-life imagery. The gerontological sciences have also contributed to the popularization of longevity as a ‘revolution’ with its own social ‘dividends.’ This paper, in outlining longevity as a cultural field, draws on Judith Butler’s idea of ‘livability’ but concludes with a critique of the prospects and problems of newly life-extended worlds; in particular, the professional reframing of ‘resilience’ as an ontological ‘bouncing back’ capacity of older people, the merging of survivorship with ‘successful aging’ and the ethical dilemmas of what Sharon Kaufman refers to as a medicalized ‘reflexive longevity.’ A recent Alzheimer’s Association advertisement boasts: ‘The first person to survive Alzheimer’s is out there, enjoying their life, smiling, dancing and watching their family grow. The Alzheimer’s Association promises to help everyone else still fighting until they find that first survivor.’ Here, as with other new life-extending disease movements, the worthiness of life is relegated to a hopeful, disease-free longevity that, paradoxically, can diminish the experiences of suffering and vulnerability associated with surviving old age.