A recent NY Times article, On Dying After Your Time, poses many topics for discussion that must be addressed. I knew before I even started to read the article that readers will have varying opinions on the matter of extending life beyond its appointed time to die. These opinions will be based on ethics, biases, age of the reader, and religious beliefs, to be sure, but another factor that comes into play is the personal experience of each reader.
If the reader has watched a loved one perilously balanced in limbo with a ravaged-by-disease body and/or mind, that reader might lean towards declaring that too much is being done to artificially prolong life. In the past five years of my life, I have watched both my father and my sister-in-law die from Alzheimer’s. Who they were at the end of their lives didn’t come close to resembling who they were pre-disease. If the reader has had no experience with this aspect of life and death, that reader may feel more comfortable with the decision to throw every treatment possible at the patient with the goal of allowing that person to live as long as humanly – or scientifically – possible.
One of the issues presented in the NY Times article is the fact that as we live longer, there is an increase in the amount of chronic illnesses – a fact that certainly stands to reason. “This rise in chronic illness should also give us pause about the idea, common to proponents of radical life extension, that we can slow aging in a way that leaves us in perfectly good health…The evolutionary theory of senescence [growing old; biological aging] can be stated as follows: while bodies are not designed to fail, neither are they designed for extended operation.”
The author of the NY Times article is an 83 year old man who closes out the piece by stating, “We are not, however, obliged to help the old become indefinitely older. Indeed, our duty may be just the reverse: to let death have its day.”
If you haven’t yet formed an opinion on the matter of life-extension at all costs – I encourage you to do so before it’s too late. Life and death decisions are best made well in advance of the necessity of such decisions.
A full-page newspaper ad for hearing aids, walkers, and safe bathtubs drew my attention the other morning:
“Seniors fear loss of independence more than death.”
I agree with that catch phrase, even though the final act of death brings its own fear level centered around how it will occur or whether or not it will be painful. But the loss of independence creates greater fear in me because of what it could mean:
- perhaps having to move out of my private residence;
- having my car keys taken away from me and being reliant on others for all of my transportation needs;
- being told what to wear, what and when to eat, and when to go to bed;
- not being able to bathe privately; reliant on someone else to make sure I get the job done right;
- speaking of which, needing assistance on the toilet OR having an alternate means of evacuating my bowels – ugh!;
- you name it – anything for which I am reliant, dependent, or beholden to someone else, scares me half to – well – death!
But maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m super sensitive to this issue because of my work with vulnerable adults in long-term care facilities. So I asked friends, family, and others with whom I’m acquainted what stands out as their greatest fear in their Baby Boomer years. Here is a summary of numerous responses to my query:
- loss of independence which oftentimes involves chronic illness and/or dementia that drains the household finances;
- loss of independence resultant from dementia as it seems to be prevalent in so many families;
- loss of independence thereby putting the burden of care on my spouse;
- loss of mobility;
I couldn’t resist listing the last response because it made me laugh while contemplating a subject matter that brings little humor to the table.
While taking a walk with a neighbor the other day, he concurred with the above, also adding that if a person had unlimited finances, loss of independence wouldn’t hurt as much: use of your own private driver, 24/7 caregiving in your own home, the best Chef money could buy so you’re not relegated to institutional “cuisine.” But you know, I’m not so sure that being able to afford all of the above would make me feel less dependent upon others than if I had a standard of living like most everyone else. Sure, the amenities are better, but the underlying cause for needing those amenities remains the same – the inability to do things for myself.
Now that we’ve all agreed that living an independent life is very precious to us – I know we understand more clearly why our parents or other loved ones fought the aging process every step of the way. I thought I was very empathetic to my father when he had to surrender his car keys. But now that I’m a wee bit older than I was at that time, I’m thinking I had no inkling of what my father went through as little by little he lost the independence he had enjoyed for eighty-some years.
But how can we prepare so as to avoid a complete loss of independence?
Well, if you find the magic formula, please let us all know. As for me and my household, I’m concentrating on the here and now in preparation for the future. Here’s my contribution:
- Exercise like your life depends upon it – because it does. That doesn’t equate to running marathons or riding the Tour de France, rather, it’s participating in a variety of exercise options to which you know you can commit. What works for you – not what everyone else is doing.
- Enjoy the food you eat but don’t be addicted to it. My husband and I have dessert every night and we use butter instead of margarine when we cook. Those are luxuries that we decided to enjoy while making sure that the rest of our diet is balanced and more healthy than not.
- Speaking of balanced, we love our wine, so nightly, we enjoy a glass during those post-workday (and post-exercise) moments while we catch up on our respective days. Oh, and we also enjoy another glass as it goes so wonderfully with dinner, don’t you think?
- Use your brain in ways that you don’t use it while at work. There’s still no fool-proof method of preventing Alzheimer’s or other dementia, but you’ll feel better about yourself if you continue to challenge what you know – and what you don’t know.
- Seek peace amongst the chaos. In my article, Where do you find peace?, I explore both how to find peace, and how to keep that peace from slipping away. Rather than repeat what I previously said, I hope you’ll find time to read my “peaceful” article.
Now it’s your turn. What are you doing to avoid what many of us fear the most? I know many Baby Boomers would benefit from hearing what you have to say. We’re all in this together – regardless of how far from each other we live – so let’s work together towards attaining the goal of remaining independent as long as we possibly can.