Why I Don’t Want to Die at 75

11_4Recently Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel wrote an article published in Atlantic entitled, “Why I Want to Die at 75.” Not surprisingly, it has caused a stir. And being exactly 75 myself I find myself drawn to the fray. In a recent interview on Public Television the author of the article had this to say in justification of his premise: “I look at 75, when I look at all the data on physical disability, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, loss of creativity, slowing down of the mind and the body, and 75 seems like that, albeit somewhat arbitrary, moment where you get the maximum chance you’re still going to be vital and alive and vigorous.”

Dr. Emanuel is currently 57 years old, a relatively safe distance from which to make such a pronouncement. With my 76th birthday a couple of weeks away, I have—as might be expected—a different perspective.

This is just one man’s opinion, after all. Not a pronouncement anyone is obligated to live—or die—by, but when I consider the fact that Dr. Emanuel has been an advisor to President Obama concerning health care policy in this country, his opinion takes on disconcerting power. Imagine the kinds of public policy that could be influenced by such a perspective!

He acknowledged, as one must, that some people remain vital and creative past 75, and the reactions I have seen to his article have rushed to name such folks. A list like that always points out, in particular, those who are known for their contribution to the arts, as though the arts were, somehow, the gold standard for “vitality” and “creativity.” As though those who tend gardens and nurture grandchildren and simply live, maintaining friendships and families and history, barely deserve mention.

But there is a larger issue here. As Dr. Emanuel accurately points out, if we live long enough, our abilities will diminish. That is inevitable. It doesn’t matter how well we eat, how many supplements we take, how much we exercise, how positive we remain. And the diminishment won’t just be in our ability to run marathons or to wear high-heeled pumps without endangering our spines.

Our brains will slow. Our memories will show gaps. (I am often reminded, these days, of the statement, “I have an excellent memory. It just happens to be extremely short.”) The most common words will slip from our grasp. (I have been intrigued to note that I can easily find myself searching for an obvious word when I am talking, but rarely when I’m writing. I can only assume writing uses a different, more reliable part of my brain.) Our senses will be less acute. Our comprehension will come more slowly. (I wear hearing aids, and they work as well as hearing aids can, but my problems deciphering speech are confounded by the fact that my brain sometimes takes an extra beat to register what I have heard.)

And that doesn’t begin to touch on failures of joint and muscle, of heart and digestion, of strength and balance . . . or, of course, remembering my own bout with cancer three years ago, our greater vulnerability to disease.

I would seem to be agreeing with Dr. Emanuel’s argument, but I’m not. He has a right, certainly, to value his own body, his own life only for its agility and productivity. And I am more grateful than I can say that I continue to create and to publish as I pass the three-quarters-of-a-century mark. But Dr. Emanuel and our society as a whole makes a huge mistake not to value life for more than strength and acuity.

My knees creak when I rise from a long sit at the computer. Words I know slip away in conversation. But my life is richer today than it ever has been. I am content, not just with the harvest I have gathered, but with each moment that presents itself. More content than I have ever been.

Do I want to go on living when my life is reduced to pain or to a radical loss of comprehension? Absolutely not. And that is, no doubt, part of what Dr. Emanuel was reacting to, our medical system’s ability to keep us alive long past the time when we are of any use, not just to the world around us, but to ourselves. It is a profound problem and one we must find better solutions for.

But while I hope we work seriously and with deep love on that failure of our medical system, I also hope we don’t forget that life is about more than being useful. We are important, each one of us, simply because we are . . . even when it is time for us to receive more than we can give.

Because receiving is another way of giving. The giver grows in the giving. And that’s a truth we all need to hold close at any time of life!

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23 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Want to Die at 75

  1. Carmela Martino

    What a marvelous post, Marion! I was especially touched by your closing comments:
    >>I also hope we don’t forget that life is about more than being useful. We are important, each one of us, simply because we are . . . even when it is time for us to receive more than we can give.

    Because receiving is another way of giving. The giver grows in the giving. And that’s a truth we all need to hold close at any time of life!<<

    My 89-year-old father-in-law is now a member of our household. While it is sad to see his decline of his memory and some of his cognitive skills, it's been a true blessing for us to be able to help him. He continues to share his wisdom with us, and memories that my husband had never heard before. While society may not see that as being "useful," it's priceless to us and our family. Hugs to you!

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  2. Jean Bay Wiley

    Your final four sentences are, for me, absolute and pure truth. I speak as the one who was on the giving assistance side when I was caring for my aging mother. We always had a very difficult, complicated and painful relationship. Caring for her, despite all that, enabled me to grow by leaps and bounds in what I now claim as some wisdom. I needed to do it as much for me as for her, so that I could continue to be the type of human being that I respect and aspire to be..

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  3. writersideup

    This is beautifully stated, Marion, and I agree with you. Granted, I’ve been disabled a long time so my body and brain started failing a very long time ago. I’ve experienced loss of things mentally and physically at a much younger age, and with the worsening of things, it definitely frightens me, but not for a second do I want my life to end any time soon, nor do I stop creating even though it becomes increasingly more difficult to do certain things. Life is a gift and we should treasure it for as long as we can. No one knows what tomorrow will bring, let alone each person’s “75.”

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks for your perspective, Donna. It’s an important one. To value ourselves only for what we can do rather than for what we can be is life denying. You know better than most of us.

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  4. Shonna McNasby (@shonnamcnasby)

    Reminds me of a related thought. There was a doctor interviewed on the news about Brittany Maynard’s choice to end her life (which I don’t take issue with), who said something that bothered me. He said medicine could help people like her manage pain and other symptoms, but could not help preserve dignity. I don’t see a loss of dignity when age or illness takes away a person’s abilities, even the most basic ability for self care and speech. There should be no shame in that. None at all. I wish the advocates for allowing these choices would adopt another word.

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks, Shonna. Language is so powerful, isn’t it? If we say people lose their dignity when they lose their ability to care for themselves, then it becomes so. I wonder what other understanding we could bring to such a moment in life.

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  5. Carleen M. Tjader

    Wise words on a timely issue for me, as well, Marion. I began learning the craft of writing about four years ago…at age 63. It’s exciting and challenging, and yes, I go to conferences and classes and author visits with hearing aids now!
    But I so agree with your statement that life is more than just being useful. There have always been, in my life, older individuals who have influenced me and been important to me. And I believe I am arriving at that same time in my life when I may fulfill that same role for younger family and friends.
    Your writing continues to influence me, so I’m very glad you are doing this blog!

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  6. Margaret Willey

    I have read your recent posts (and as of today “liked” your blog) because my editor often likes what you’ve written and posts it on Facebook (Andrew Karre). He brought my attention to your post on school visits because I told him that I had stopped visiting schools except for a handful of very poor schools near where I live in Michigan. I no longer have the stamina for out-of-town school visits. I am finding your blog so meaningful and uplifting. In this post I love what you say about becoming less compulsive as you age; I am also finding that to be true and a gift. Thank you.

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  7. Norma Gaffron

    Ah, Marion, I know what you mean. In so many ways. Tomorrow I turn 83. Last weekend my college, (WSU), honored me with a Distinguished Alumni Award.
    That was lovely. But today is an ordinary day.I am glad the sun is up, I have my husband’s laundry to sort and fold, I was able to chat with a friend and perhaps console her a bit about her news of her son’s diagnosis of cancer.
    Yes, each of us is important, whatever our day is like.
    Thanks for being you. And sharing your thoughts with us.
    Norma

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  8. Mary Atkinson

    I love this post, Marion, and I love Sarah’s comment. Again, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks, Mary. Sometimes the time consumed by this blog feels like too much, but it’s comments from my readers that keep me posting . . . and knowing I have steady, consistent readers like you.

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  9. elizabethvaradan

    Great post. I’m 75, and feel some of the effects of that (creaky joints, words slipping away, as you mentioned), but I’m certainly not ready to call it quits. Never have I enjoyed my life more than at the present. I like so much your premise that “our society as a whole makes a huge mistake not to value life for more than strength and acuity.” Older people still have a lot to offer, and I agree with Sarah Lamstein about your take on receiving as well as giving.

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  10. Sarah Lamstein

    Oh, Marion, how lucky we are to have your voice!! You express my sentiments exactly. Though I continue to write in my early 70’s, and do it somewhat obsessively, I am at peace when I leave the work to be with family and friends – seeing the huge effect such contact has on my well-being. These relationships actually subsume the writing – particularly when I’m with my grandchildren, entering their world and delighting in everything. I can actually feel a physical benefit in being with them – not on my joints and limbs – but in a warmth that envelops my body and spirit.

    And I love what you say at the very end, about allowing loved ones the gift of giving. So wise.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks, Sarah. I used to think when my children were young that if that they ever looked back from adulthood to complain seriously about my mothering, it would be about the obsessive nature of my attachment to the typewriter. (It’s a complaint I haven’t heard, but maybe I need to ask.) It feels good, in any case, that my compulsion is less obsessive these days, that my world grows larger, not smaller, but that the good work remains to bless my days. I love your own assessment, Sarah, about leaving your obsession to be with friends “seeing the huge effect such contact has on my well-being.” That sounds like balance. I haven’t always had that.

      Reply

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