(WOMENSENEWS)– Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old who chose assisted dying when faced with a terminal illness has put the issue of how we want to live and die in the headlines. Many others now are joining the debate on what quality of life truly means.
With the Silver Tsunami approaching, baby boomers now reaching 65, 75 and beyond, will continue to remake retirement, golden years and end of life decisions, as they have every phase of life since their 30s. But strikingly different views of the years between 60 and 75–and what they are worth–have recently been provided by Professor Ezekiel Emanuel and Encore.org. While the former gives up, the other gives hope. Though unaware of either outlook, my mother, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, has experienced both.
In September, the family celebrated Mom’s big birthday. It was a funny, poignant evening, with all of us aware of Mom’s frailty and her resilience–and especially her ability to laugh at life and herself. I had invited friends and family to contribute to her Big Birthday Album: a favorite memory, photo or simply a greeting. My son, who adores his grandmother, said he had a hard time coming up with one specific story. “I have dozens of stories about Granddad. Grandmother is in the background every time, but the event doesn’t hinge around her.” It was the story of her life; always there, always invisible and, until recently, in Dad’s shadow.
It was only when my Dad died more than a decade ago that my Mom began to bloom and be seen by many around her for the funny, engaging person she is. “Your Dad never thought my jokes were funny,” she told me after his death, “so I stopped telling them years ago.”
My Dad was a role model for Emanuel’s “Why I Hope to Die at 75” in The Atlantic. My Dad, also a university professor, did in fact die right at age 75. His philosophy, embodying all the arguments of Emanuel’s position, was summed up many times as a warning to anyone who might try to stop him: “I want to die with my boots on.” It sounds kind of noble and heroic, everything my Dad strove to be.
For Dad, Retirement Was the End
Like Emanuel, my Dad did not think life worth living if he could not be a professor. Blessed, or cursed, with a strong constitution and genes for longevity, he actively started trying to kill himself at the mandatory retirement age of 70. Having promised my uncle (also a professor) not to use weapons, drugs or a car crash in this pursuit, he announced his intention to kill himself with “cigarettes and alcohol.” Aided by pneumonia, he succeeded just before his 75th birthday.
Having watched up close my father’s fear of losing his Alpha Male status as a university professor and his refusal to consider any other kind of life (enjoying his grandchildren, the classical music and gourmet cooking he always loved), I am possibly oversensitive to Emanuel’s dismissal of a life past the peak years of “creativity” defined in a certain way. I read his arguments as a fear of not just infirmity, financial insecurity or dependency, but of losing the social status that (primarily Caucasian) men with upper income, a top-flight education and high achievement are allowed to claim in our society.
“Welcome to my world” is what I want to say, both to Emanuel and to my Dad. The fear of losing status, of being treated as “other,” as no longer productive, creative or worthy is the lifelong condition of many women, as well as racial and ethnic minorities throughout their lives, and certainly as they start to show signs of age.
I agree with most of Emanuel’s propositions: that we should emphasize and plan for quality rather than simply quantity of years; that the myth of American immortal–the secret belief that old age will not happen to me–is a trap that serves no one, and that it is far more valuable to focus medical resources on a prevention of Alzheimer’s and infant and maternal mortality rather than on interventions that simply extend life.
Lots More Left After 75
However I was shocked by his assertion that “by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast majority of us.” For an alternate view, look to Encore.org, a nonprofit dedicated to taping the skills and experience of seniors, and the 800 seniors nominated for the 2014 Purpose Prize, awarded to Americans 60 and older who have had an impact on the world. Their message of giving back to the community, and of being of service to others, is precisely what scores of studies, indicate will increase both the quality and quantity of our “golden years.”
Emanuel insists on using “creativity” as the sole indicator of a worthwhile existence, repeating that the average age at which Nobel Prize-winning physicists make their discovery is 48, and that classical composers make their last significant contribution at 52. (Emanuel notes that only male composers were included).
Are the lives of low-wage workers, caregivers for the ill and elderly, those who live with disabilities of all kinds not creative, not worth supporting and celebrating?
Emanuel’s reaction to his own father after a stroke, one that at 77 changed him from the “prototype of a hyperactive Emanuel” to someone who could no longer make rounds at the hospital or teach, was of someone whose “dying process has been elongated.” Sadly, my father would have agreed that a life that no longer allowed for his professional activities was a form of dying. Emanuel notes that his father can still “swim, read the newspaper, needle his kids on the phone and live in his own house.” Does that life sound desirable? Emanuel asks himself. His answer: Not to me.
So, Emanuel writes that he plans to end his life, if possible, at age 75. He wants to be remembered “in his prime: active vigorous, engaged, animated, astute, enthusiastic, funny, warm and loving.”
I only wish he could meet my Mom.