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Boomers not likely to lead the cheers

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CALGARY -- Wow. Barely had Prime Minister Stephen Harper stepped away from the microphone in Davos, Switzerland, last week after announcing Ottawa's pension-reform ideas than the cheerleaders were tumbling across the gym floor, mercilessly shaking their pompoms in our faces.

Rumour has it the eligibility age for old age security payments may go from 65 to 67? People can work longer? Rah! Go team! 50 is the new 30, 60 is the new 40, 70 is the new young whippersnapper, 80 will soon be the new 20, and death? Hah! We don't have time for death because we're too busy working!

We're too vibrant! Gimme a V! Gimme an I!

Yay, vibrancy!

I'm not even going to get into the fact Harper and his MPs won't have to wait till 67 to think about retiring. Not with the rich pensions they're entitled to after serving just six years in Parliament. That might raise the blood pressure of aging baby boomers. It could adversely affect their health and prevent them from crawling across their own finish line, which looks as if it'll soon be dragged farther up the road like a spike belt the police are laying to catch a speeder.

Stop the pep rally; I want to get off.

In private conversations and in the media, I'm hearing about how it's a terrific idea for people to work longer, how we're healthier, more fit and more -- here comes that obnoxious word, so prepare to cringe -- vibrant than ever.

Hey, you 75-year-olds who still aren't in training to climb Everest or run the Boston Marathon! Get out there and get going! Do you want to go to jail for not being vibrant? It's the cardinal sin of our post-millennial era.

Non-vibrancy sometimes rears its ugly head, though, even if you're far from 75. Tuesday morning, I took my border collie to the vet, where I noticed a chart on the wall which compared dog years to human years.

"Look at this," I said to my dog. "According to this chart, you and I are the same age. How come you have way more energy than I do?"

Which brings me to the troubling question that the work-till-you-drop cheerleaders shrug off. Aren't people entitled, at the end of 30 or more years of working, to enjoy a bit of a respite between the last day of work and the first day health problems begin to set in on the downward slope to the grave?

Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, writes in a relentlessly upbeat op-ed posted on the institute's website: "Age 65 and the moment when one can no longer reasonably be expected to work have long since parted company. We live longer and are in better health. Much of the work in our increasingly service-based economy is not physically taxing. Many conditions associated with aging can be controlled by medication or corrected by surgery, with new breakthroughs daily. It is only a modest exaggeration when some say that 60 is the new 40."

I remember my dad, retiring at age 70, not very long ago, enjoying maybe one year of good health before being diagnosed with the congestive heart failure that killed him less than three years later.

"These are the golden years?" he asked.

Just saying "We live longer and are in better health" than previous generations doesn't make that mantra true, much as we'd like to convince ourselves it does.

Read the newspaper obits -- every day, people in their 50s and 60s, many of them cited as having enjoyed running, bicycling, skiing, hiking and other activities, are still felled by cancer, heart disease or stroke, in spite of how fit they are.

Things happen to people, no matter how "vibrant" or active they may be, things that are simply beyond their control, things that feel almost like an insult when they happen.

I learned a sobering lesson about this just recently, when I went on sick leave for six weeks because of carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands. I learned things arise from within you that make you realize you don't have control over everything, the way you thought you did.

It was too painful for me to type or hold a magazine, a book, a piece of paper or even the steering wheel, for that matter. Some evenings, I couldn't hold a knife and fork at dinner. I couldn't even hold my husband's hand when we went for a walk.

Given the uncertainties that lie ahead in peoples' senior years, 65 remains a reasonable age to retire and still have some hope of enjoying good health for a while. At 25, the future stretches out, vast and full of promise, but I think at 65, people are painfully aware their time on this Earth is limited.

Have Crowley and the other cheerleaders never heard the quote, attributed variously to Erma Bombeck, and the late U.S. senator Paul Tsongas, among others? "Nobody ever said on their deathbed that they wished they'd spent more time at the office."

Naomi Lakritz is a columnist for the Calgary Herald.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2012 A10

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