Recently 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!