In a provocative article in The Atlantic, bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel announces 75 is long enough. He says that’s an appropriate age to die. The title of the article, “Why I Hope to Die at 75” is a bit misleading though. Emanuel doesn’t plan to blow out the candles on his 75th birthday cake, go into the bedroom and swallow a bottle of pills. Rather, at 75 he will quit doing anything to prolong his life and let nature take its course. He will forgo any kind of treatment, even preventative. He will no longer take flu shots or colonoscopies (I’m with him on that one.) no longer take antibiotics if he has an infection. And of course such treatments as chemo if he should develop cancer or bypass surgery for a heart attack are out of the question. I suppose if he stepped on a rusty nail, he would refuse a tetanus shot. He will no longer visit doctors for check-ups or routine tests. If ill, he will accept palliative care to lessen pain but nothing else.
Why? Well, he says by 75 he will have lived a full life, accomplished his greatest achievements, had an opportunity to see his children and grandchildren and presumably done everything he wants to do. That includes climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, which he did last year. He suggests that after 75 all we have to look forward to is decline…physically, mentally, emotionally. Cancer, heart disease, dementia—one of these will be on the horizon. We will be a drain on family members, take up hospital space. With dementia, we will even lose our selves. When we’re finally gone, our children will remember us as old and decrepit, not young and vigorous as we once were.
Emanuel’s father, near 75, was a mega-achiever and now is content to be a mentor to younger people (Is that so bad?). Slowing down doesn’t seem to bother Dad, but Ezekiel finds it infinitely sad. If you’re no longer accomplishing much other than completing the daily crossword puzzle, who would want to go on? Apparently Emanuel never heard of Grandma Moses.
Important note: Ezekiel is 57. At that age, 75 does sound ancient. How will he feel at 74? Will he still believe there are no more peaks to climb, even metaphorically? Of course we don’t know.
As one who has passed what he considers the end-stage age of 75, I still feel pretty lively even though I’m walking more slowly and my waistline has expanded and I forget where I put my keys more often than I used to. I think there is still joy to be found in living. Yes, I fear disease and dementia, especially the latter. I remember being profoundly shaken by the book Still Alice, in which the main character decides to commit suicide when her dementia worsens to the point where she doesn’t want to live…and then, when that time comes, has forgotten how she planned to do it.
When I suffered severe pain this spring from a pinched sciatic nerve, I wondered if life was worth living. But I’m better now and more optimistic. I don’t intend to quit taking flu shots or seeing my doctors…but I do sort of hope to slip away peacefully some night...in the future...in my sleep.