When is a good age to die? Perhaps 80, like the heroine of the 1971 cult film Harold and Maude? Or maybe 85 or 90? Or are you one of those hardy souls who hope to make it to 100?
In this month’s Atlantic, the oncologist and author Ezekiel J. Emanuel, 57, makes the case that, for him, 75 will be the best time to die.
Collective gasp. For some of us, 75 doesn’t feel all that distant.
“I won’t actively end my life,” wrote Emanuel (brother of Chicago mayor, Rahm), a bioethicist who opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia. “But I won’t try to prolong it, either.”
At 75, Emanuel said, he will stop seeing doctors, decline medical tests and avoid any treatments except those to ease pain. If he is diagnosed with cancer, he will opt not to treat it. If he contracts pneumonia or a UTI, he will refuse antibiotics, letting nature take its course — and take him out.
Why 75? By then, Emanuel believes, you’ve had a life. You’ve seen your children grow up (if you’re a parent), traveled, enjoyed professional and creative successes. Your active life is behind you. Ahead are the mental and physical debilities of extreme old age.
Moreover, he argues, you’ll be doing your children a favor by letting them become the heads of the family and not turning them into your caregivers as they approach their own retirement years.
And oh yes — you won’t outlive your money.
What Is A Fair Share Of Life?
Emanuel insists he is not proposing a scheme to ration health care. He’s not even asking anyone to agree with him and knows that most people (including his family members) won’t. He’s simply looking at the quest to extend the human life span and asking how much is enough. How many years do we wish to accumulate, and how many experiences? Does the time come when we can say we’ve had our fair share?
Certain Eastern yogis and holy men are said to have left their bodies when they felt it was time, nonviolently finessing their own deaths. Is 75 a good time for that?
The Atlantic article brought me face-to-face with my own measure of denial about aging — my belief that if I adopt the right diet, exercise and take supplements I can stave off the worst of it. Emanuel has a phrase for people like me — he calls us the “American immortals.”
The sad truth is, it’s all going to all fall apart in the end, no matter how much mangosteen and maca I consume.
Nor is it useful to point to the exceptional elderly, those who are still pursuing higher mathematics, running marathons or weaving tapestries at 90. These “outliers,” as Emanuel calls them, are not the norm.
For the vast majority of us, physical abilities atrophy and creative output stalls at a certain point in life. If you haven’t written the great American novel yet, you’re probably not going to write it at 75.
The Mysterious Importance Of Aging
Emanuel makes an interesting case and raises some provocative questions. But there’s one thing he gets wrong, I think — and it’s a biggie. He makes the mistake of assessing old age from the vantage point of youth, applying the values of productivity and accomplishment to a period that might better be suited to contemplation.
Perhaps the life task of extreme old age is not to contribute in the ways we are used to thinking of as important. Maybe the job is to downshift and, I don’t know, breathe.
Maybe old age is a prayer and the nursing home, a cloister. Maybe all those old folks who look like they’re doing “nothing” are in fact doing something mysteriously important.
Sean Strub in Body Counts, his memoir of the AIDS epidemic, described a dying friend who felt that suicide might be an option if things got too bad. But in the end, a shaft of sunlight coming in his bedroom window proved so beautiful and beguiling that he felt life was still worth living so long as he could see it.
Maybe we, too, will experience these small moments of grace more fully as we age. Maybe they will give us reason enough to live past 75 — even if we are no longer able to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.