None of us asked to be born but once we’re here may of us are fearful of leaving, even when the quality of life no longer allows them the simplest of pleasures.
There seems to have been a firestorm created following Ezekiel J. Emanuel’s article in The Atlantic recently that expresses a personal preference to avoid life after 75 if it is devoid of a quality that keeps him “vibrant and engaged”. Your first reaction might be one of shock and horror that a person would choose to die at a time when they may still have many more fruitful years left – but this is not what Emmanuel is advocating as his testimonial here asserts:
I’m neither asking for more time than is likely nor foreshortening my life. Today I am, as far as my physician and I know, very healthy, with no chronic illness. … Nor am I talking about waking up one morning 18 years from now and ending my life through euthanasia or suicide. Since the 1990s, I have actively opposed legalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.
I am talking about how long I want to live and the kind and amount of health care I will consent to after 75.
Emmanuel makes some cogent points about people as they age and the conditions they endure which makes living not so pleasant, to put it mildly, and would see death as a relief.
There would always by the religious fundamentalists of course whose pro-life views would object to anyone sanctioning such end-of-life desires since, as they see it, only God can take a life. Yeah right, God and a misdirected drone or a murder trial jury that failed to get all the facts in a case. But that’s an argument I have made here and here that supports the right to die and thus I will move forward on what concerns me here about those who criticize Emmanuel’s take on choosing to die at age 75.
One of the weakest arguments people are inclined to make in my opinion is how “valuable” life is and we should hang on to it with all of the tenacity we can muster. Tyler Cowen takes this approach in his article, “Should we hope to live to very ripe old ages?” A careful reading of Cowen’s piece however finds it hard to detect any substantial reason why life is so valuable when our bodies and our minds have deteriorated to a point that mere existence entails little more than breathing and emptying our bowels of nutrients that resembles much of what is fed infants and some toddlers today
Cowen agrees that “the value of an individual life is to be sure somewhat ineffable” but then assures us that for the “same reason it is difficult for a life to lose so much of its value”. Really? How do you measure such value? By what scale or social denomination do you set values on human life? If there be one, shouldn’t it entail the quality of life one can expect from living? And who, prey tell, makes that assessment? The Church? The Government/Society? The medical science?
I am in full support of the notion that life is precious, primarily because it is all that we have. It is what we can make of it while we can and then ceases to have meaningful value once we are no longer able to live in a way that doesn’t require 24-7 nursing care or services that deplete our financial resources, leaving us nothing but the charity and good intentions of family and friends.
Though the number 75 has created a metric by which Emmanuel has determined when life starts to deteriorate, for some it will be years later before such negative conditions take over but for many it will start years before. Both my grandmother and great-grandmother lived to be 103 and 106 respectively. They were both relatively sharp mentally into their 90’s but for the last 10 years of their life they seemed oblivious of where they were and needed constant supervision from medical staff or qualified family members filling that role. They could not dress themselves or empty their bladders and bowels without someone aiding them.
On the other hand I have seen people in their 60’s rapidly deteriorate from contemporary diseases my grandmother and great-grandmother were largely immune from, like cancers, diabetes and heart attacks. Their generation avoided cigarettes, processed food and menus absent raw fruits and vegetables.
Independent ambulation for such people is only possible if they have powered wheelchairs or scooters with an oxygen tank attached to them. Though many vacationing venues are starting to accommodate people who require such mechanical devices it is more likely that one’s income determines more their ability to visit such places over any period of time. Those who are on fixed income incomes cannot afford to take long journeys under such health conditions and as a result wound up spending most of their time in close quarters that ultimately feed the depression which further exacerbates their physical condition.
And what of those who are able to afford the means to be kept alive at all costs? I worked as a hospice aide worker for about a year and several of the people I spent time with were totally bed-ridden, with one gentleman barely conscious at times to allow the nursing aid to clean him up after he had lost continence. A condition that he endured daily. Contrary to what Cowen thinks I haven’t remembered this elderly gentleman as “that really old guy who hung on forever because he loved life so much”. It was more like that old guy who endured daily humiliations and likely had private urges for someone to end it all for him.
Our lives should be full of those things that bring us both joy and sorrow, because one without the other prevents us from appreciating what we have. As long as our minds and bodies allow us to, we should fill our lives with all that it has to offer as our personal circumstances allow. If we have planned our lives too cautiously then I can see where people will have regrets when their number is called. But that is the lesson of life we should have all learned before age 75, or earlier for that matter.
If fate dictates my time is up before I am willing then I have only myself to blame for not making the most of it with the time I had. But if I have made the most of it and I become reduced to little more than a bag of rocks I hope I have the courage to cancel any and all medicines and procedures that merely extends a life not worth living.