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# Part IV—Aging

Module by: Ruth Dunn. E-mail the author

Summary: Minority Studies: A Brief Sociological Text is a very, very brief textbook suitable for use as a supplemental or stand-alone text in a college-level minority studies Sociology course. Any instructor who would choose to use this as a stand-alone textbook would need to supply a large amount of statistical data and other pertinent and extraneous Sociological material in order to "flesh-out" fully this course. Each module/unit of Minority Studies: A Brief Sociological Text contains the text, course objectives, a study guide, key terms and concepts, a lecture outline, assignments, and a reading list.

## Minority Studies: A Brief Text: Part IV—Aging

In the mid-19th century, British poet Robert Browning wrote “Grow old along with me / The best is yet to be / The last of time for which the first was made.” Between 1996 and 2015, over 5,000 Americans PER DAY will have turned 50 years of age—these are Americans who were born between 1946 and 1965, otherwise called the Baby Boom Generation

Old age begins at age 65 years. The young-old are those from 65 to 75 years old; the old-old are between 76 and 84 years old while the oldest-old are 85 years of age or more. The oldest-old are a fast growing segment of the American population. We have more elderly people now, than ever before in our history. In 1900, only 4% of the American population was over 65, in 1990 12% of Americans were over 65. In 2010 38.9 million Ameidoricans were 65 or older: about 13% of the total population. In 2010, 2.0% of Americans are over 85! Each of these major age groups represents a cohort—a group of people born close to the same time period who have similar life experiences and similar remembrances

For example the Depression Kids who are people who were adolescents or young adults in 1929; Baby Boomers, people born between after World War II (between 1946 and 1965); and Gen X who are the children of the Baby Boomers, each have their own distinct memories of memories of war, musical forms, technological change, medical breakthroughs, epidemics, changing social norms and mores, etc. The shared understanding of a particular sociocultural milieu is called the cohort effect. In thirty years, when the majority of you are middle-aged, and you are hanging out with your friends, you will probably be listening to the same music you listen to now, and you will occasionally reminisce about what life was like when you were young, and the changes you have seen.1

## Cohorts: Memories and Technology

### Example 1

Depression Kids are people who were adolescents or young adults in 1929. Their shared memories include: Pearl Harbor. WWII. Korean Conflict, the GI Bill, swing music and big bands, (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, etc.), jazz, and flappers. Their technology was: radio, telephones, flivvers and jalopies (specialized cars), and talking pictures (movies).

Baby Boomers are people born after World War II (between 1946 and 1965). Their shared memories are: the assassinations of John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, rock ’n’ roll, the Sixties (hippies and yippies, Woodstock, drugs, birth control pill and the sexual revolution, the Civil Righs Movement, the Vietnam War, the moon landing, and the resignation of Richard Nixon. Their technology included: transistor radios and color TV.

Gen X are the children of the Baby Boomers. Their shared memories include: the Challenger disaster, heavy metal rock music, Michael Jackson, drugs, abortion on demand, the Gulf War. Their technology included: PCs and Macs, Donkey Kong, pagers, 8-track tapes, tape players and CB radios in cars.

Gen Y are people born in the mid-to-late 1980s. They are the children and grandchildren of the Baby Boomers. Their shared memories include: Hip Hop and Rap music, September 11, 2001, the Iraq and Afghan Wars, Harry Potter, and CNN. Their technology included: the Internet, Cell Phones, Video Games (online, game players such as the Playstation, hand-held game player platforms such as the Gameboy), and 24/7 cable/satellite/fiber-optic TV.

The Millienials are people born in the 1990s. They are the grandchildren of early Gen Xers, and late Baby Boomers. Their shared memories include Hip Hop and Rap music, Beyonce, Kanye West, September 11, 2001, the Iraq and Afghan wars, the Toyota recall, the election of Barack Obama, the financial and economic crisis of 2008-2010, the earthquake in Haiti. Their technology includes: I-Pods™ and MP3 players, I-Phones™, smart phones, Blackberries™, Wii™, social networking media (Twitter, Facebook, My Space), and online education.

## Changes Due to Aging

Although there are many scientists who today are working to overcome the most deleterious effects of aging, and some who are even attempting to stop aging and expand the life span, for most of us now, aging is an entirely normal process. As we age, our bodies begin to change and many of us believe, incorrectly, that aging is closely related to virtually complete physical and mental deterioration. Our cells and organs do indeed change over time, but a healthy life style and engaging in interesting and challenging activities as well as interacting with other people helps the elderly to remain physically and mentally healthy into very old age. Some things that do occur however are that skin texture and resiliency changes, hair turns gray or falls out, spinal disks compress; joints stiffen; and many women suffer from osteoporosis. Generally speaking however, these changes do not necessarily mean that the older person is falling apart or that they are losing their ability to care for themselves. Many healthy elderly people are quite capable of living very active lives, in their own homes, into very old age. 2

We tend to believe, again wrongly, that as people age they experience changes in personality. In actuality, unless there is illness or brain damage such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, changes in personality, perceptions, and attitudes do not occur. Cranky, ill-tempered, unpleasant older people, in general, were cranky, ill-tempered, unpleasant young people, just as pleasant, enjoyable, fun old people were pleasant, enjoyable, fun young people. The differences that we think we see often are related to the conditions in which the elderly live. Elderly people who are alone, or who are in nursing homes (a form of total institution) often suffer from severe levels of clinical depression.3 The old people depicted on the television show The Simpsons who sit in wheelchairs and stare out the window all day are clearly chronically depressed. Elderly people who have nothing to do, who feel purposeless and useless, tend toward severe depression. Alcoholism and suicide are at nearly epidemic proportions. However, according to Havighurst different personality types adjust differently to aging; while Russell argues that aging is a normal process and healthy older people can do most of the same things as younger people.4

Social roles do change over time as do the norms and folkways concerning “proper” behavior for the elderly, such as appropriate clothing styles, activity levels, and sexual activity. Healthy oldsters however, should be allowed and encouraged to engage in physical activity including sex. Most elderly people enjoy normal relationships with spouses and families, and when their own families are not present they tend to form family-like relationships with others. Contrary to popular wisdom, most elderly people care for themselves, with spouses caring for each other in times of illness or distress, rather than relying on adult children to become caregivers. 5

## Stratification by Age

There is indeed inequality that is based on age, although gender and race or ethnicity are more significant indicators of stratification than age alone. Throughout the years there have been laws that prevented the elderly from working past the age of 65. However, the Age-Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 made such policies and laws illegal. The AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) is the largest lobbying group in the United States. (A lobbying group petitions Congress to pass laws favorable to the specific agenda of the group.) The AARP’s membership is composed of people over the age of 49 who, along with their younger spouses, pay ten dollars each year and in turn receive discounts on car rentals, vacations, hotels and motels, resorts, cruises, and insurance, among other things. Most members of the AARP are employed, and are not officially elderly. Along with Maggie Kuhn of the Grey Panthers—an organization whose goal is to eliminate all aspects of ageism, which is the belief or ideology that people in a particular age category are inferior to people in other age categories—the AARP was responsible for the passage of many laws favorable to the elderly.6

Regardless of any specific theoretical paradigm, it is clear that the elderly have heard the voices from the past, and in the grandest legacy of the American republic, have assembled in multivariate ways to petition the government, initiating “a new era in the politics of aging ”7 It is also clear that the elderly gain significant benefits by engaging in various forms of social interaction.8. Pamela Hubbard, et al. (1992), in a study of political activism among a relatively small sample of institutionalized (i.e. nursing home residents) seniors found that participation in an active and effective political action group helped seniors “fulfill their needs to be responsible and contributing community members, gain a sense of empowerment, and enhance their control over their environment. Residents are able to shed nursing home stereotypes . . . [and] enjoy the social benefits of participating . . . [in a group in which] the residents are not as sheltered as other institutionalized elderly.”9

## Political and Social Activism

However, political activism among the elderly, regardless of the social benefits that accrue to members, is seldom seen as benign, and, as with most lobbying groups, the elderly must justify their positions vis á vis the positions of other lobbying organizations and the preeminent social, economic, and political interests of the polity as an aggregate. The largest, most financially secure, and arguably most politically powerful elderly advocacy group, AARP, has been criticized for its undemocratic methodology because “most members join for [the social and financial] benefits, [and] in doing so they automatically become part of a political army, fighting battles which they may or may not believe in.”10

## The AARP

According to the AARP (quoting Bureau of the Census statistics), there were, as of 1993, 32.8 million elderly representing 12.7% of the entire population of the United Sates and that number is expanding: the number of elderly has increased by 5% since 1990 compared to a 3% increase in the size of the population under 65, and by 2030 the number of those over 65 is projected by the Census Bureau to be 70.2 million or 20% of the entire population (A Profile 1-2 [1994]), moreover, “the fastest growing segment of this older population is the age group 85 years and older; this segment is projected to double to 4.2 million persons by the year 2000” (INFO-PAK n. page. [1995]). Robert N. Binstock’s (1995) figure of 33 million members of the AARP (Binstock 71 [1995]) leads one to conclude that all people who are over 65 are members and indeed, the AARP (1995) lists its membership at “more than 33 million . . . [making it] the largest non-profit organization serving the needs of older persons in the United States” (AAARP News 1 [1995]), however, membership in AARP is not restricted to those who are considered elderly but is open to “anyone age 50 or older, both working and retired,” and, in fact, “over one-third of the Association’s membership is in the work force” (AAARP News” 1 [1995]) which accounts for the seemingly disparately large numbers of participants.11, 12

The sheer size of the AARP makes it appear formidable, therefore, in order to “respond to charges being levied by some advocates of generational equity that [old age interest groups] are concerned with the special interests of the elderly population to the exclusion of the legitimate interests of any others.” Eric R. Kingson (1988) suggests that “the resources . . . at the disposal of elderly interest groups are more important to the success of their lobbying and other efforts than the perception that they are not selfish. After all, why should elder interest groups, or any other interest groups for that matter, be expected to be unselfish?” Furthermore, the elderly have enormous political clout at the polls—they vote in vast numbers. “The AARP’s, members, who are mainly middle class, can be counted on to turn out at election time. In 1980, 71% of Americans aged 55-64 went to the polls, compared with 36% of those aged 18-20.”13, 14

Walter A. Rosenbaum (1993) and James W. Button contest Kingson’s (1988) view that there is “a deterioration in the public image upon which the political privilege of the aging is grounded [and which] is a bellwether of generational tension” and argue that most studies of political preferences among the elderly generally highlight only those issues and policies that directly impact the elderly rather than issues and policies that effect all Americans. Indeed, they found that “studies of candidate and party preference among the aging, like policy studies, seldom reveal significant associations between age and voting choice that cannot be explained by other socioeconomic factors.”15 Furthermore, it is clear that the vast majority of all money given to political parties is given to the party in power16, 17 so that access gained through financial means is largely based on pocketbook issues that effect most citizens. Moreover, Laurie A. Rhodebeck (1993) maintains that while “older Americans share common age-related concerns . . . they are ”“hardly subject to the solidifying experiences typical of [other minorities].” She further argues that:

several conditions seem likely to enhance cohesion among older people. The development of retirement communities may encourage interactions that foster an awareness of common political interests. The availability of senior citizen perquisites may promote a sense of group entitlement that extends to the policy arena. Finally, recent deficit reduction measures that have threatened the viability of public assistance for the elderly may serve as effective mobilizers of group interests and powerful inducements to the maintenance of group unity. 18

With the sea change in the American political scene from a largely liberal Democratic majority in the Congress to a predominately conservative Republican majority, lobbying and other special interest groups will find it necessary to modify their approaches. Indeed, as the political climate is transformed so must special interest and lobbying groups adjust their tactics if they are to be successful petitioners. Binstock (1995) offers a brief analysis of the changes that must take place if old-age activist groups are to maintain their ability to influence public policies:

Starting in the late 1970s and continuing into the mid-1990s, new stereotypes emerged in popular culture depicting older people as prosperous, hedonistic, selfish, and politically powerful, greedy geezers. . . . In this era the activities of old-age interest groups were aimed at protecting existing programs and their specific features. These defensive efforts were somewhat successful in the broad sense that cutbacks in old-age programs during this period were generally less than in other social programs.19

Moreover, Binstock (1995) argues that, as the Congress, if not the country as a whole, becomes more partisan and more ideologically conservative “this new era in the policies of aging [will pose] difficult challenges for old-age interest groups. ”20

Considering that largest of the age-related special interest groups Binstock (1995) says:

## Sex and Gender

Due to the traditional sex-typed roles practiced by women and men who are currently among the old-old (85+), gender differences in role continuity tend to exist with women much more likely than men to maintain close family connections (Barer 74). Women also tend to socialize with peers and be more actively engaged in close interpersonal relationships than men (Barer 74). However, white women outlive white men into old-old age so that Amore men than women, aged eighty-five and over are still married, 48.7 percent of white men in comparison to only 10.3 percent of white women. . . . As a consequence, more women live alone in late-late life, two-thirds compared to one-third of men.”33

To compound the difficulties inherent in widowhood and living alone, the socioeconomic status of women is“ relatively poor. . . . Twenty-three percent of women aged eighty-five and over live in poverty, compared to 16 percent of men” (Barer 74). Furthermore, women tend to have “greater physical disability because of chronic health conditions [which makes women] less able to independently manage their activities of daily living” (Barer 78). Men, however, due to traditional sex-typed roles, although physically better off than women, are more likely to experience problems with domestic chores and tend to face a greater likelihood of social isolation (Barer 79). Clearly, both sexes in old-old age may be faced with serious problems which have sociopolitical and socioeconomic ramifications for young and old alike (Tauber 65-67), but, as Cynthia M. Tauber argues, “all of American society face[s] the challenge of anticipating and preparing for the changing needs and desires of a diverse, aging U.S.” (Tauber 67).34

Even though the gender related age gap will continue to exist among the elderly and particularly the old-old, that gap may be closing as Americans become more aware of health issues and practice preventive maintenance (Kirkland 22; Tauber 65). According to Richard I. Kirkland, the “advances that will make us live longer and healthier . . . range from the marvelous to the mundane” (Kirkland 23) and include: “[m]ore targeted medical weaponry” (Kirkland 23); cures for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias (Kirkland 24); more powerful antibiotics and immune system strengtheners (Kirkland 24-25); hormone replacement and enhancement (Kirkland 25); healthier life-styles (Kirkland 25); and genetic engineering to retard the aging process at the molecular level (Kirkland 25-26). However, echoing Tauber, because “[t]he culture still too often patronizes and stigmatizes its elderly citizens” (Kirkland 28), there are serious socioeconomic and sociopolitical problems that must be addressed as the population of the United States ages (Kirkland 28).35

The late thanatologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, was a physician who took on only patients were all terminally developed a stage theory of dying. Dying, assuming one lives long enough to complete it, is for the terminally ill, a process. According to Kübler-Ross the stages of dying are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. As the Baby Boomers age, euthanasia, which is helping the terminally ill to die free of pain and with as much dignity as possible, may become a major social issue. There are two forms of euthanasia—passive euthanasia which is allowing someone to die and active euthanasia which is helping someone to die36. On June 26, 1997, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling that said that there is no constitutional right to die, and states may make their own laws covering euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. How will we deal with this? What are your feelings about this issue?

As with all other forms of stratification there are serious consequences of ageism which includes elder abuse which is the mistreatment of older persons and takes several forms: physical abuse is hitting, pushing, shoving, starvation, and rape; psychological abuse includes threats, intimidation, verbal assaults; and exploitation which is the misuse or theft of financial assets.37 How do you want to be treated when you are old? How can you change the way elders are cared for today?

## Footnotes

1. Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology: 2nd Edition. Thompson, William E. and Joseph V. Hickey. New York: HarperCollins. 1996. Sociology: Sixth Edition. Schaefer, Richard T. and Robert P. Lamm. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998. Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. Andersen, Margaret L. and Howard F. Taylor. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2000.
2. Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology: 2nd Edition. Thompson, William E. and Joseph V. Hickey. New York: HarperCollins. 1996. Sociology: Sixth Edition. Schaefer, Richard T. and Robert P. Lamm. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998. Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. Andersen, Margaret L. and Howard F. Taylor. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2000.
3. Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology: 2nd Edition. Thompson, William E. and Joseph V. Hickey. New York: HarperCollins. 1996. Sociology: Sixth Edition. Schaefer, Richard T. and Robert P. Lamm. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998. Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. Andersen, Margaret L. and Howard F. Taylor. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2000.
4. Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology: 2nd Edition. Thompson, William E. and Joseph V. Hickey. New York: HarperCollins. 1996. Sociology: Sixth Edition. Schaefer, Richard T. and Robert P. Lamm. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998. Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. Andersen, Margaret L. and Howard F. Taylor. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2000.
5. Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology: 2nd Edition. Thompson, William E. and Joseph V. Hickey. New York: HarperCollins. 1996. Sociology: Sixth Edition. Schaefer, Richard T. and Robert P. Lamm. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998. Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. Andersen, Margaret L. and Howard F. Taylor. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2000.
6. Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology: 2nd Edition. Thompson, William E. and Joseph V. Hickey. New York: HarperCollins. 1996. Sociology: Sixth Edition. Schaefer, Richard T. and Robert P. Lamm. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998. Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. Andersen, Margaret L. and Howard F. Taylor. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2000.
7. Binstock, Robert H. “A New Era in the Politics of Aging: How Will the Old-Age Interest Groups Respond?” Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging. 19.3 (1995): 68-74.
8. Hubbard, Pamela, Perla Werner, Jiska Cohen-Mansfield, and Rochelle Shusterman. “Seniors for Justice: A Political and Social Action Group for Nursing Home Residents.” The Gerontologist. 32.6 (1992) 856-858.
9. Hubbard, Pamela, Perla Werner, Jiska Cohen-Mansfield, and Rochelle Shusterman. “Seniors for Justice: A Political and Social Action Group for Nursing Home Residents.” The Gerontologist. 32.6 (1992) 856-858.
10. “Old, But Far From Feeble,” The Economist 12 Mar. 1988: 30.
11. A Profile of Older Americans. (Washington: AARP, Program Resources Department, 1994) 1-9. Rhodebeck, Laurie A. “The Politics of Greed? Political Preferences among the Elderly.” The Journal of Politics. 55.2 (1993): 342-364.
12. INFO-PAK (Washington: American Association of Retired Persons, National Gerontology Research Center, 1995) N. page. “AARP News: Fact Sheet.” (Washington: American Association of Retired Persons, Communications Division, 1995) 1-10.
13. Kingson, Eric R. “Generational Equity: An Unexpected Opportunity to Broaden the Politics of Aging.” The Gerontologist. 28.6 (1988): 765-772.
14. “Old, But Far From Feeble,” The Economist 12 Mar. 1988: 30.
15. Rosenbaum, Walter A., and James W. Button. “The Unquiet Future of Intergenerational Politics.” The Gerontologist. 33.4 (1993): 481-490.
16. Rosenbaum, Walter A., and James W. Button. “The Unquiet Future of Intergenerational Politics.” The Gerontologist. 33.4 (1993): 481-490.
17. Salant, Jonathan D. “Where the PAC Money Goes.” Congressional Quarterly 15 Apr 1995: 1058-1059.
18. Rhodebeck, Laurie A. “The Politics of Greed? Political Preferences among the Elderly.” The Journal of Politics. 55.2 (1993): 342-364.
19. Binstock, Robert H. “A New Era in the Politics of Aging: How Will the Old-Age Interest Groups Respond?” Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging. 19.3 (1995): 68-74.
20. Binstock, Robert H. “A New Era in the Politics of Aging: How Will the Old-Age Interest Groups Respond?” Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging. 19.3 (1995): 68-74.
21. Binstock, Robert H. “A New Era in the Politics of Aging: How Will the Old-Age Interest Groups Respond?” Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging. 19.3 (1995): 68-74.
22. Binstock, Robert H. “A New Era in the Politics of Aging: How Will the Old-Age Interest Groups Respond?” Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging. 19.3 (1995): 68-74.
23. Butler, Robert N. “Politics versus Policy in the Health Care Debate.” The Gerontologist. 14.5 (1994) 614-615.
24. Kingson, Eric R. “Generational Equity: An Unexpected Opportunity to Broaden the Politics of Aging.” The Gerontologist. 28.6 (1988): 765-772.
25. Neustadtl, Alan. “Interest-Group PACsmanship: An Analysis of Campaign Contributions, Issue, Visibility, and Legislative Impact.” Social Forces. 69.2 (1990): 549-564.
26. Rovner, Julie. “‘Pepper Bill’ Pits Politics Against Process.” Congressional Quarterly 4 Jun 1988: 1491-1493.
27. McClaren in Annual Editions: Aging. Ed. Harold Cox. Dushkin: Guilford. 1995.
28. Bell in Annual Editions: Aging. Ed. Harold Cox. Dushkin: Guilford. 1995.
29. Ryan, Cross, Butler, Kirkland, Mayo Clinic in Annual Editions: Aging. Ed. Harold Cox. Dushkin: Guilford. 1995.
30. Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology: 2nd Edition. Thompson, William E. and Joseph V. Hickey. New York: HarperCollins. 1996. Sociology: Sixth Edition. Schaefer, Richard T. and Robert P. Lamm. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998. Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. Andersen, Margaret L. and Howard F. Taylor. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2000.
31. Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology: 2nd Edition. Thompson, William E. and Joseph V. Hickey. New York: HarperCollins. 1996. Sociology: Sixth Edition. Schaefer, Richard T. and Robert P. Lamm. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998. Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. Andersen, Margaret L. and Howard F. Taylor. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2000.
32. Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology: 2nd Edition. Thompson, William E. and Joseph V. Hickey. New York: HarperCollins. 1996. Sociology: Sixth Edition. Schaefer, Richard T. and Robert P. Lamm. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998. Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. Andersen, Margaret L. and Howard F. Taylor. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2000.
33. Barer in Annual Editions: Aging. Ed. Harold Cox. Dushkin: Guilford. 1995.
34. Barer, Tauber in Annual Editions: Aging. Ed. Harold Cox. Dushkin: Guilford. 1995.
35. Kirkland, Tauber in Annual Editions: Aging. Ed. Harold Cox. Dushkin: Guilford. 1995.
36. Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology: 2nd Edition. Thompson, William E. and Joseph V. Hickey. New York: HarperCollins. 1996. Sociology: Sixth Edition. Schaefer, Richard T. and Robert P. Lamm. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998. Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. Andersen, Margaret L. and Howard F. Taylor. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2000.
37. Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology: 2nd Edition. Thompson, William E. and Joseph V. Hickey. New York: HarperCollins. 1996. Sociology: Sixth Edition. Schaefer, Richard T. and Robert P. Lamm. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998. Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. Andersen, Margaret L. and Howard F. Taylor. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2000.

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