Monday, August 2, 2010

Penn & Teller "Old People"

Penn & Teller: B.S! is a Showtime documentary series. Magicians/comedians Penn and Teller set out, in a comedic way, to debunk various paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs and common myths. Some of their topics have been ESP, astrology, lie detectors, and organic food. One of the most recent episodes, "Old People", takes on various myths and stereotypes faced by the elderly. It isn't meant to offend (something the show definitely doesn't mind doing), but rather point out how disrespectful American culture is of the elderly.

Myth: There is an "old person smell". They set up an experiment with 3 old and 3 young people and had blindfolded volunteers smell them. The smellers had to determine if the smellee was old or young. They were accurate only 56% of the time. Very scientific evidence against the "old person smell".

Myth: Older people can't drive (or drive poorly or slowly). They featured a 70 year old race car driver. They also pointed out that those in the age group 16-24 are more likely to cause a fatal accidental.

Myth: The elderly don't have sex. They interviewed several members of a retirement community about their active sex lives.

But in the end the show takes a serious turn. The last section deals with a controversial end of life issue, physician assisted suicide, or as they call it aid in dying (pointedly to take the word suicide out of the name). They interviewed a gentleman, Sheldon, with mesothelioma, who wants to be able to end his life when things become intolerable. Despite the fact that Penn and Teller clearly are in favor of aid in dying, they do give some screen time to a doctor who disagrees with them. And they didn't taunt him, much. They specifically recognize that it is complex issue, not just black and white.

One of their guests sums it up nicely at the end. "For us just to sort of say, 'Old people have come and gone. Let's sweep them under the rug,' it would be a terrible mistake of ours as a culture, as human beings. I think its unfair to deny them their essential humanity just because they've lived longer than us. That's insane." I know that in a blog frequented by hospice and palliative care professionals, this is preaching to the choir. But I do think it was an interesting topic for them to take on.

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