The baby boomer generation, that demographic bulge born into an optimistic, prosperous nation fresh from its victory in World War II, impacted American society as it passed through every life stage. New schools were required to accommodate their huge numbers, which led to open classrooms, and other educational experiments. When they aged into adolescence, the critical "identity crisis" became conventional wisdom. National crime waves peaked when large numbers of Boomer males were in their late teens to mid thirties, and the women's movement changed gender assumptions when Boomer females entered the work force. The Baby Boomer generation has indeed had impact.
Supplementing the transformative power of their huge numbers was their good fortune. Baby Boomers lived most of their lives in an expanding economy, prosperous and confident of the future. Now they are entering old age - still a demographic mammoth, but living in an economically strapped country. Can they change the meaning of life's final stage? Yes they can.
Back in the 1960s and ‘70s the youth culture brought drug use into the mainstream, and it soon got out of control. Excesses gave drugs a bad reputation, and put a halt to a great deal of promising research.
But that may be changing. The increasing acceptability of medical marijuana reduces the conceptual boundary between psychoactive drugs in widespread use - such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, stimulants for ADHD, drugs which provide great benefit despite their potential for abuse - and the therapeutic value of drugs that have been shunned.
For example, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have been studying psilocybin, the ingredient found in psychedelic mushrooms. They found the right dosage to produce a mystical experience that offers long-lasting positive effects, with low risk of negative reactions. Studies using the drug with terminally ill cancer patients reveal its ability to ease their fear of death. The current Hopkins study (see the Journal of Psychopharmacology) used healthy subjects. Looking back more than a year later, 89% reported lasting, positive changes in their lives, in their relationships and in their own physical and mental well-being. 94% rated participation in the study as one of the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lifetimes.
All those who study psychedelic drugs maintain that context is all. This is the conclusion of anthropologists examining drug use in religious rituals, as well as clinicians carefully using drugs therapeutically. Used properly and only occasionally, there is an arsenal of drugs that deserve a second look - a sober look - for their value in the last stage of life. Baby Boomers should insist on this as their final legacy.
If you're interested in learning more about the history of this subject, a good intro is a book of interviews, Higher Wisdom: eminent elders explore the continuing impact of psychedelics, edited by Roger Walsh and Charles S. Grob.