Robin Williams died far too young at age 63. In life, he showed us how to trample the ordinary by sounding his barbaric yawp from the rooftops of Hollywood. He taught us about being extraordinary and how not to let the conventions of yesterday rule our lives today and tomorrow.
The fact that we believe he died so young says a great deal about life in the 21st century. Billions of us are over age 60 is the mark of our time.
This is why Robin Williams has left valuable lessons that we overlook at our peril. Here are three:
One: Mental health problems as we age are serious, underappreciated – and treatable.
Depression is a silent, devastating illness that even a genius like Robin Williams felt he needed to endure mostly alone. The stigma connected to mental illness prevents millions of people of all walks of life from seeking help – help that can heal them and make them better. (Williams also suffered from problems with addiction and had recently undergone heart surgery, which can lead to depressive symptoms.)
Other age-related diseases manage to catapult to the forefront of global concern. When someone suffers from cancer, it becomes a rallying cry. Banquets are held. Groups are formed. Not so for depression. For some reason we hide mental illness behind a cloak and pretend it doesn’t exist. This stigma is sad and must change – not unlike the stigma of Alzheimer’s, which is the epidemic of our longevity era.
Two: The clichés that help us cope with death and make sense of it are becoming true.
Robin Williams had so much left to give. He died so young. For someone whose genius of language could disrupt our expectations better than almost anyone, it seems regrettable that the earliest public eulogies for him are packed in trite language. Yet there is some consolation in platitudes. They help us understand how this century is undergoing radical change because of much longer lifespans. This is huge precisely because it’s so common.
When Robin Williams was born in 1951, his life expectancy – that of a middle-class American male – was only a few years more than his actual lifespan. With advances in medicine and science these past six decades, dying at what was an “average” age then is now dying tragically young.
Three: We expect brilliant people such as Robin Williams to contribute to society well past their 60th birthdays...
...Yet the rest of us are more or less expected to retire, step aside and draw benefits from the government for the rest of our lives. This neediness and dependency view is vastly out of touch with what we now know about aging.
Why shouldn’t the rest of the populace be expected to make solid and strong economic contributions as long as they’re able? Robin Williams’s tragic death should highlight just how mismatched our expectations are with reality. As The Fiscal Times has previously reported, Americans over age 65 will not only control 70 percent of the disposable income in this country – they’re today responsible for at least $7.1 trillion in annual economic activity. That number is expected to keep rising.
Yet, from work to education, from public policy to markets, our institutions still operate as though we’re still in the 20th century. Let’s adjust our realities at a time when living to age 90 is becoming the norm, even as we continue to mourn the passing of a tremendous contributor to society whom we won’t soon forget.
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