Or, how long do you want to be old?
So today, I heard something that struck a real chord with me. It was a story about a man, but no ordinary man, and his is story or viewpoint on how long he wants to live is far from ordinary. His view does not come from a place of illness; he’s perfectly well, which is the motivation behind his story.
An essay written by this man, Dr Ezekiel Emanuel, the former health policy advisor to President Barack Obama, was recently published in The Atlanta.
It is a long essay, and I’ll leave a link at the end of this article if you are interested.
Now, living in Australia and only following American politics from afar, I had never heard of him but, not anymore! The title of his essay, “Why I want to die at 75”, is confronting, which of course, is the intention.
For most of us surviving well into old, old age is pretty much imprinted into our DNA. Most of us, including myself, want to live a long time.
Dr Emanuel is currently 57, so he has another 18 years. This idea of his poses a few questions, and there is no doubt Dr Emanuel wrote the essay to provoke ideas and push us to examine how we live and how we age.
How do you want to age?
It’s not that he wants to die at 75, not at all, and he’s the first to admit he doesn’t like the title, but it works. It piques our attention.
In fact, the last time I looked, there were over 4000 comments linked to the original article. So clearly, it’s a subject many feel strongly about.
So, what is Dr Emanuel really saying? Well, when he reaches 75, he no longer wants modern medicine to intervene, no tests, no flu shots, no antibiotics, nothing that will increase his chances of longevity past the age of 75.
He leaves very few stones unturned, every argument you may have about this arbitrary figure he has already thought of and countered a further answer to add to the debate. And it is a debate he wants to provoke.
You may, as I do believe that that life after 75 can be good. Finally, no longer the worries of striving for success or making money, worrying about the future. The future is here, and it’s time to enjoy it.
While Dr Emanuel agrees death is a loss that deprives us of life, experiences, milestones and time with our spouse, family and friends.
In his own words, Dr Emanuel writes…
But here is a simple truth many of us wish to resit. Living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.
It’s a sad and sobering description of the life we may live after 75, but does it really have to be this way?
During the years of caring for my mother, who, in her early 70’s began to show signs of dementia which eventually and sadly took her life at the age of 77, I became exceedingly frustrated with the medical profession.
Once you receive the diagnosis of dementia, most doctors, who undoubtedly have seen so much of the crisis that awaits a family after the first diagnosis, usually wipe their hands of you.
They know what’s coming, and they know only too well, they can’t help.
Sure, they’ll provide the best of current medications available. They know it’ll give you some sense of hope, even though in their own hearts, they know it offers little more than a slowing down of the inevitable. And that’s where it ends. There is no follow up appointment.
Being left out in the cold is a lonely place.
Despite the feeling of being left out in the cold with this diagnosis, and a few pamphlets and the contact details for websites like fightdementia.org or alzheimers.org as they usher you out, there’s very little offered. You’re in the wilderness known as dementia.
It’s a frustrating and confusing place to inhabit.
This experience and what was to follow led me to think more about the impact of healthy living and the best way to live my life not just for the here and now, but as a way of improving my well-being as I enter the years, we all to refer to as old age.
Contributing or taking responsibility for my own healthy longevity and avoiding being a burden in old age is not just for my own quality of life but also those around me. But I ask myself, is that possible?
Many illnesses have the potential to ruin the hope of ageing well. While Dr Emanuel’s essay is not just about Dementia and Alzheimer’s specifically, he does highlight some very sobering statistics.
Dr Emanuel continues…
5 million Americans over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease. One in three Americans 85 and older has Alzheimer’s and instead of predicting a cure in the foreseeable future, many are warning of a tsunami of dementia – a nearly 300 per cent increase in the number of older Americans with dementia by 2050.
Those statistics rock me to my core.
If a cure is a long way off in the distance, governments should put all research into prevention. This is how I feel about many diseases and why I am frustrated with the medical profession. I would prefer to go to a doctor when I am well and be offered scientifically proven ways to achieve healthy longevity rather than have my GP try very hard not to roll their eyes if I dare to mention preventative or alternative medicine.
Of course, despite my frustration, I understand they have their medical algorithms to follow. They are scientists and can only engage in dialogue where evidence has been provided.
I get that. This is why researchers should do much more research to provide proof of healthy ways to live. But, my cynical self sighs, knowing most pharmaceuticals will only invest in research where there is a huge financial gain. Further research in something as simple as vitamin B12 for many age-related symptoms does not equate to big commercial profits.
Policy changes in research funding…
We need more research on Alzheimer’s disease, the growing disabilities of old age, and chronic conditions – not on prolonging the dying process.
And then this…
The fact is, by 75 creativity, originality and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.
What about the outliers among us?
While Dr Emanuel acknowledges, there are outliers, those that break from the norm, however, he does not give the rest of us much hope at all. But, I would counter that many of us live much of our lives bereft of creativity, originality, or productivity, so I’m not at all convinced that this condition comes to us at 75.
I can also think of many people living their life in the public eye well into their 70’s who enrich all our lives, Jane Fonda, Helen Mirren, Judy Dench… Katherine Hepburn, now gone, but to live a brilliant life right to the end, I know, perhaps not the norm but still, don’t they give us all that little bit of inspiration to embrace our age?
Does Dr Emanuel have a point?
Now to be clear, I’m not against what he’s written, far from it. However, if we choose to, I believe many of us can live enriched, happy, creative lives well past 75, although I agree that in some circumstances where the quality of life has become unbearable, preventive measures should be ceased.
Palliative should take the place of curative or corrective, comfort and dignity over living just for the sake of those who will suffer the loss of the demise of their loved one.
You may think Dr Emanuel is not pro-life? But no, not at all. He appears to embrace every moment of his life.
His goal is to make us think existentially about the life we are living today, the quality of our lives right now, at this very moment and to contemplate on our eventual departure from this world, as this by far is the best way to get more living out of life.
If you’d like to read the full essay by Dr Ezekiel Emanuel, you can find it over at The Atlantic: Why I hope to die at 75.
See you next time,