Friday, September 26, 2014

Why Dying At 75 Is Worth Considering



Image by: Nicole Pierce



By now most of you have probably read Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s highly riveting and thought-provoking article on why he hopes to die at 75. Based on some reactions I’ve read, I know that the ideas he put forward are contentious and made a lot of people uncomfortable and even enraged. However, I admit that this essay earned a huge nod from me.



Emanuel hopes to die by age 75, but by no means is he advocating euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide.



He emphasized that our culture's manic pursuit of youth (or what he calls the ‘American immortal’) doesn't really prolong life but instead only prolongs the dying process.


The author cited studies showing that physical and mental capabilities decline as we age and that "...by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us." 

In the personal sphere, Emanuel discussed how the desire to live long places huge financial and emotional burdens on our children, and how living well into old age goes against his desire to be remembered by others as someone vibrant, active and engaged.

One of Emanuel's most important points is his discussion on how he wants to approach healthcare as he ages, admitting that he'll see it more as palliative rather than curative care; that he won't actively end his life but won't be interested in prolonging it either, which means rejecting preventive tests, flu shots and any life-sustaining interventions.

I don't agree with everything Emanuel wrote, especially where it concerns vaccines, though I admit I feel somewhat validated and comforted. I agree that after a certain age, the need to prolong life is unnecessary. And I most certainly agree that it shouldn't be denied that aging translates to a decline in physical and brain health. It's just how nature is. 

People criticize Emanuel for choosing what seems to be an arbitrary age of 75. I don't believe it's as arbitrary as some may think, in the same way that some may think my chosen age of closer to 80 sounds completely random. But it's not.

It's 80 for me because I'm considering my son's age. By age 80, my son would've already turned 46 and by that time, I'd like to believe he'd be more equipped to deal with my passing. No one is ever really prepared at any age but by then, I think he'd be more settled in his own life, happy and hopefully with children of his own.

It's 80 because that was around the same age when my own grandmother's mental faculties started to significantly decline. She is suffering from dementia, and though not officially diagnosed, I wouldn't be surprised if what's causing it is Alzheimer's disease (AD). I fear ending up the same way, as I know is also true for my mother. Who am I to assume that I will be spared the same fate because of advances in technology now? Science admits that much of AD remains a mystery. Research says it could be genetic. If that's the case, then I'm pretty much screwed. On the bright side, you'd understand my support of Emanuel's sentiments even more.

Besides the decline in my mental faculties, I'm certain that the decline in my mobility and dexterity also won't take its sweet time. I know this because roughly five years ago, the process has begun for me. I have fingers that are slightly deformed because of osteoarthritis. There are days when they feel stiff and I fear the day when I will find it impossible to write. My knees creak and I've been told by a doctor to avoid walking in incline and that I shouldn't run so much anymore, if at all. 

So yes, if I could have my way, I want to die before I get too old. It isn't aging I fear. It's the point of helplessness and uselessness. And it's not solely about fear but also love. I love my family which is why I don't want to inflict myself on them should I reach that point when much of 'ME' is already gone. I don't want to be an unnecessary burden to my child and don't believe I am his responsibility. I don't want to cause him unnecessary financial and emotional strain as he tries to figure out how best to care for me when I can no longer fully care for myself. 

Death is a very personal experience. We confront it alone, no matter how many others surround us. And the older I get, the more I become objective enough to admit that death happens way before it takes our last breath. 'To live', 'have a life', or 'be alive', means more than just having a beating heart and the capacity to breathe. What it truly means is to be productive, to be able to contribute something worthwhile, to still know how to look forward to experiences and learn, be enthralled, be curious. But if one gets too old or too sick and disabled to even have the capacity to move about, care for oneself and others, and have a mind clear enough to engage in valuable relationships, then isn't that not being fully alive anymore? And if that's my belief, and choose not to prolong my own life without actively seeking death but merely by embracing its inevitable arrival, then why chastise me? 

For most of my life, I never understood my mother's lack of desire to grow really old and die old. But now I do. I'm thankful to Zeke Emanuel for starting this discourse and forcing people to ask the tough questions about the nature of aging, death and even the meaning of life; for making the brave and honest among us confront HOW we want aging and dying to look like for us if we could indeed choose. It's not only the practical thing to do, but also the most loving thing we could offer those who come after us, those who we'll leave behind.



13 comments:

  1. I'm 71 and have had some health issues, one serious, that have slowed me down and forced me to spend more time than I'd like in the doctor's office. But I'm also working against time to get out my books before it's too late. Time is my big question and fear. I must keep going until I've got out all my books and fight every day against drowsiness, lack of energy, my slowed-down self,pain, and other commitments. Fortunately my creative urge is stronger than ever but what isn't is my energy level.. You will see in Don't Hang Up! how I don't give up easily if at all, but one thing I have never had to contend with is mortality. It's with trepidation that I live this last decade of my life hoping it won't be cut short at say, 75, either by death or by health. I need a reprieve so that I can fulfill my destiny as a published writer, something I should have done years ago except I was too busy making a living. So I can't agree with Emanuel. Some people need those years to fulfill their goals and others to enjoy their golden years. Not everyone goes downhill by 75.
    Penelope J.

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    1. Yes, Pennie, I agree with you 100% that Emanuel's 75 does NOT apply to everyone. As I wrote, I pushed mine to 80. Who knows if I'll push that further when I'm much older and still feel able, right? It's really different for each person and more than just having a deadline in mind, what I think is most impt is for each of us to spend some time contemplating on how we picture aging and death. But while we can, while the creativity and the health are there, I say go forward! Write and publish! You have much wisdom in you which you know I'm a BIG fan of and would love to see your dreams come true! THANKS so much, Pennie! xoxo

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  2. I can certainly understand why this book would enrage some readers. I was not enraged but rather found it laughable. Coming from a family where almost everyone lived into their late nineties with mental capacities and health intact, I realize how much aging has to do with your state of mind. I am closer to 70 than 60 and never been busier or healthier. I am a health coach and been privileged to help hundreds of people maintain their health or to regain it after almost losing it. When he recommended refusing flu shots, I had to laugh out loud. The chemicals in the flu vaccine will kill you a lot faster so for those who want to die young, keep getting your flu shots. Unfortunately a lot of people do not do their research or choose to believe the lie that life stops at a certain age. Good nutrition, good attitude and a healthy immune system will give you a good long life. Think young, die old.

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    1. Hi Carol. It's good that you mentioned your family because yes, that factors in a lot as far as these 'deadlines' go, I believe. I chose 80 because that seems to be the trend in my family and like I wrote, I am basing it on my personal state of health at the moment. Life doesn't completely stop until we are dead (well, except for the soul, but that's for another day!) and we should live it to the fullest while we can. Good nutrition and positive vibes are good tools indeed! We will rage on until we can no longer do so. What that age will be, is different for each of us. Thank you so much for your thoughts! :-)

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  3. My dad just turned 74 this July and he is still healthy and full of life, so 75 does seem really young, but I guess it depends on your state of health. Last year when I went to the US Open, we went on this tour where they were talking about the changes they were going to make, which includes a roof on center court. This is supposed to be completed in the next 10 years. My dad said in a matter-of-fact way that he would be dead by then, which was kind of a conversation-stopper. I was really taken aback when he said that. I guess he would be 83 by then, but to frame it as having 10 years left to live was really upsetting. I just turned 45 this year, and I'm not confident that I would handle grief any better if he were to die then. But I think if he were in poor health and felt that he were a burden on others, he wouldn't want to live that long. And perhaps it would be hard for me to see him suffering and no longer like himself.

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    1. Christy, I'm really glad you left this comment. Thank you. You're right that the age limit is subjective. My chosen limit at my age now is based on my family history and personal experiences. If your dad is strong and healthy at 74, then 75 or even 80 may not make sense. And you saying that you're 45 and feel unprepared is an eye-opener for me too with regard to my son. However, again, you're right that it's probably cos you see him strong and very able. Suffering is hard to witness, esp. when it involves those we love. Letting go is never easy but sometimes it's the most loving thing we can do. Again, THANK YOU.

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  4. I agree. I am my mom's 24/7 Alzheimer's Caregiver she's 78. I was also diagnosed with Felty's Syndrome 3 years ago it's a very rare form of RA we're I have the joint damage but it slso affects my vital organs and I basically have no immune system. I don't want to be a burden to my own daughter. My ast grandchildren will be born around Christmas (twins and these makd 3 and 4). The twins will be 30 when I'm 74/5. If I can take care of myself and survive the care giving. I would be ecstatic for 75. My husband and I took care of our burial years ago, that's the worse thing you can do to a grieving child is to die unprepared. All the decisions made and paid for, it's responsible parenting in my opinion no matter how old your children are and it's a very important conversation to have with them. I'm my mother's POA and I know her wishes. It gives us both piece of mind.

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    1. I agree, Rena, that as parents it's also our responsibility to think of the practical side of our dying. Grief coupled with the need to attend to the practicalities is hard and we don't want to burden our loved ones with that. You really illustrated my points so well with your own personal experiences. Thank you so much for sharing. I really appreciate it.

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    2. I've watched my husband's famiky be desecrated by Cancer. There were 12 children counting my husban plus mom and dad. There are only 5 left. He lost is sister in January, his mother in March they had there stuff in place but then in july he lost his baby brother(41) to throat cancer. It was a nightmare to have to come up with that money. It's only right for your remaining family especially when your grieving. So much loss in 7 short months.

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  5. This is a really thought provoking post. My grandfather (my mom's dad) is 96 and he's still very healthy and mentally aware, lives on his own and golfs every week. My grandmother (my dad's mom) is 95 and while she is fairly mentally alert, she cannot physically take care of herself, and lives in an adult family home. She often tells me that she is ready to die. I feel the same way that you do about your children - I don't want to leave them until I'm sure they are ready to fly without me - whatever age that might be. I think the IDEA of the article is very valuable, but the age would be different for everyone.

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    1. That's exactly my point, Lana. I'm glad you saw that; that it's not having the same age of 75 for all of us. It will be different, based on our family background, personal state of health and other things unique to our situation. You seem to come from a line of long-living and healthy people and that's great! It really is! What's important really is that we live life as best we can, while we can. And then also have the ability to know when it's time to let go and be okay with it. Thank you so much for your thoughts!

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  6. This is a really thought provoking post. I suppose that it is all about your quality of life when you age. I have seen my grandmother losing the plot aged 89, and, the next two years were really difficult. On the other hand, my 91-year-old grandfather seems to be doing well. That said, me being me, I would like, I must admit, to be able to decide when to go. That's probably because I am so organised!

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  7. I hadn't read the essay, so thanks for connecting me with Emmanuel's philosophy. And the notion that we prolong the dying process is so obvious, but I've never thought of it that way before.

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Let me know your thoughts!