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If we want to talk about old age, let’s really talk about old age

A special counsel’s unnecessary asides about Biden’s memory amplify our own fears about the ravages of aging.

President Biden in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Feb. 9, in Washington, following the release of a special prosecutor's report on Thursday, Feb. 8, that cleared Biden of criminal charges. The counsel made repeated negative references to the 81-year-old president's age and memory that echo broader concerns raised by voters in both parties.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

If your life is blessed with longevity, you will get old. And there’s nothing any of us can do about it.

Few want to think about getting older, let alone being old. There’s that first startling moment when you look in the mirror and you’re not quite … you. Or at least it isn’t the person you’ve come to expect staring back. And as startling as that may be, that’s the easy part. It’s the ravages of aging on our brains that we’re most uncomfortable discussing.

But since Robert Hur, a Justice Department special counsel, released his report Thursday on President Biden’s possession of highly classified documents from his vice presidency, aging is all anyone wants to talk about. While Hur declined to prosecute Biden, he reduced the president to an “elderly man with a poor memory” who couldn’t remember when he was vice president or the year his son Beau died.

At 81, Biden is the oldest president in American history. His age was an issue even before he defeated Donald Trump — the previous record holder. During a Democratic presidential primary debate in 2019, Julián Castro, a former housing secretary, accused Biden of “forgetting” his own earlier comment. It came off like an ageist cheap shot, which Castro denied.


Now such remarks, commonplace throughout Biden’s presidency, have gone into overdrive with Hur’s comments, which seemed less suitable for a special counsel’s report and more apt as an audition tape for attorney general should the Trump appointee’s former boss return to the White House. Hur gave Republicans a bone they will suck dry until Election Day.

But these events have also forced many to think about what happens as we — or those we love — get old.

By 2030, there will be more people over age 65 than under 18 for the first time in this nation’s history. A majority will require some form of long-term care, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, and about 20 percent of them will need it for at least five years.


That care often falls on overwhelmed families since professional care is painfully expensive. It costs an average $10,830 a month for residency in a nursing home and $5,806 per month for an assisted living facility, according to the nonprofit National Investment Center for Senior Housing and Care.

That’s untenable for most families. Years ago, a childhood friend and her sister took turns caring for their mother at home during a decade-long decline from dementia. Putting their own lives largely on hold, this was an act of love, devotion, and financial necessity.

That’s the impossible reality for millions of families — not that any politician ever talks about old age unless its Republicans trying to sell privatized Medicare as preferable to the program as it currently exists and ceding even more of this nation’s health care system into corporate hands.

When politicians do discuss age, it’s to mock it. Desperate to avoid getting embarrassed in her home state’s Republican primary in South Carolina on Feb. 24, Nikki Haley has made “grumpy old men” — her tagline for Trump and Biden — a thing as she tries to position herself as a leader for a next generation. I’ve always wondered how this line of attack works on senior citizens, a voting bloc Haley can’t afford to alienate.


I’ve long believed that since there’s a minimum age for a presidential candidate — 35 — there should also be a maximum age. For me, 65 sounds about right. If someone can’t get elected to the White House over the course of 30 years, then it’s not their destiny.

But that requires a constitutional change. And as much as some complain about candidates who are too old for the rigors of the presidency or other public offices, there’s been little movement toward changing it. Both presumptive party nominees are age-shamed, though, as usual, Trump, 77, is graded on the world’s most undeserved curve. Neither fellow Republicans nor his followers seem concerned when he makes yet another gaffe or confuses Nikki Haley and former House speaker Nancy Pelosi.

I can’t speak to Biden’s mental acuity, but we’re witnessing in real time for the first time what it means to have a president in his 80s. How we’re reacting may say more about us than about him. But that’s only part of the frank conversations we need to have about what it means to grow old in a nation that routinely ridicules senior citizens — and not just among our leaders.

“What a drag it is getting old,” Mick Jagger first drawled on The Rolling Stones song,“Mother’s Little Helper,” when he was 23. It’s a safe bet that Jagger, a year younger than Biden, now understands what we will all confront someday — what a drag it is when the blessing of longevity reveals its inevitable curse.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her @reneeygraham.