Human life expectancy has taken an unprecedented leap during middle-aged American’s lifetime. I hadn’t paid much attention to this phenomenon or seen evidence of it until just the past few years.
Suddenly, everyone I know has a loved one in their nineties. Not eighties: that used to be the standard for “old.” It appears ninety is the new eighty.
Some ninety-year-olds I know are articulate as ever. If they were feisty before, they’re feisty now. What made them happy before makes them happy now. The only visible impairment is slowness in walk, use of a cane, wrinkles, thinning hair, et al.
Maybe I, too, will live another ten years beyond what was expected fifty years ago. In fact, if we all take care of ourselves, with luck, we might live to ninety and beyond. I suppose that wish depends on how you define quality of life. Currently, this issue is approaching me head on because many of the ninety-year-olds I know are just barely hanging on. And on. And on.
The strong human will to live, combined with advances in science seemingly keep people going forever (that is, if you have the money to afford never-ending medical bills). Many ninety-somethings don’t even recognize loved ones who’ve come to visit them at the health center. Many are cognitively alive but unable to do much with their bodies, particularly activities that were special foundations to their happiness and self-worth.
If we knew now we’d be severely compromised at ninety, how many of us would elect not to be there? This question is dicey. So many if’s, so many legalities; so much family involvement, so much confusion. It’s one of the peskiest philosophical questions we’ll ever ask.
Not too many decades ago, it seemed when people died, they died. No hook-ups to machines; no cure or appreciable turnaround in health was imminent. People expected to die in their seventies and were happy to have lived that long. The dream today is about being as strong in our nineties as we were (or are now) at seventy-five. But most folk I know in their nineties, or know of, are nothing near their seventy-five-year-old self. We have to prepare for what the modern reality of ninety and beyond is.
One elderly woman I know is sharp as a tack. A beautiful person. She adds life and insight to everyone she knows. She’s glad not to be in any great pain, that she can walk a hundred feet from her apartment and back twice a day, but says she’s ready “to go.” Happy to have had ninety great years of life, it’s time. It’s time to die. And that’s that.
Another woman I know wants to live forever. She has a great circle of friends around her, lives in the same house she’s spent most of her life, and continues to cultivate a burning hobby. She’s also been healthy for over ninety-one years and is one of those never-get-sick, strong-as-an-ox kind of people. Even with the crippling changes in her body and other unfortunate recent circumstances, she’s better than she was at seventy-five!
Yet, most of my friend’s parents or relatives or close associates are stringing out life far into the nineties, making their families go through a living hell to care for them. Sure, no one wants a loved one to die, but how long should life go on? How exactly do we define quality of life? Again, a prickly question, one that’s not going away.
Neither is science (or pharmaceutical companies). In thirty years, will the new human one hundred be ninety? Will science of the near future be able to keep all vital systems of the mind and body going to sustain life past one hundred? I doubt it. Centuries of human evolution changed in mere decades? Modern health science seems more about halting disease, keeping ventricles pumping blood and lungs inhaling oxygen than sustaining the heart and soul of the survivor, not to mention breathing vibrant life back into a living, caring being that wants to go on for more than just the sake of going on.
As for me (note: I don’t have to worry about any of this since I’ve still got thirty years to think about it) , I joke about my plan to live a good life right up to the end by having a will made out, all possible loose ends tidied up, then, when the time is right, I step in front of a speeding train.
Even this flippant, quick and easy plan has a crack in it: “when the time is right.”
‘Tis the eternal question – when is the time right?