Long, full lives -- of pills and doctors

Special to The Times

ARE WE really living that much longer than previous generations did? I don’t think so. The insurance industry’s actuarial tables may say we are, but I’ve never understood that industry’s mathematical models of anything, especially billing. Take the case of my 81-year-old mother and 83-year-old father.

Except for my mother having lung cancer and my father being unable to walk farther than 30 feet, both of my parents are in excellent health. They are both employed nearly full time at the job of maintaining this excellent health and of managing the more troublesome parts (such as the lung cancer and being unable to walk more than 30 feet).

They know which pill has to be taken an hour before they eat and which one has to be taken two hours after, and which pill has to be taken only on Fridays, and so on with an astounding array of plastic bottles, all of which are plastered with so many warning labels it seems like a zero-sum game. When I see my parents sitting at the kitchen table in the morning, each with a gallon-sized plastic bag of prescription bottles, I’m amazed that I’ve never received a call from the emergency room telling me one of them is in a pharmacological coma.

Then there’s the time spent on the phone scheduling appointments with their roster of doctors. My mom keeps track of hers on a calendar; my dad uses a Palm Pilot. Each of these methods works beautifully for recording appointments, but what is lacking in both is the prompt to check the calendar or the Palm Pilot so they can be reminded to go to their appointments.

My parents also spend a lot of time having tests performed on them, and they speak in acronyms of MRIs, PETs, CTs, EEGs, EKGs and the old-fashioned X-ray. My parents have had more pictures taken of their insides in the last 10 years than they’ve had of their outsides.

Driving to the pharmacy, the doctor’s office, the clinic or the lab at a speed that’s 10 mph lower than the posted limit takes up generous portions of their time, as does all the waiting at these places for their name to finally be called.

Then they spend prodigious amounts of time talking to their kids on the phone to tell us about the drive and the test and the long wait and what the doctor said. My point is, if you add up all the time my parents spend on maintaining their health and subtract this number from their actual age -- I don’t think they’re living much longer than the original Cro-Magnon who had none of these advantages. But they’re happy -- and they do get out of the cave more often.

Marci Crestani is a Los Angeles-based writer.