Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel made an important announcement last year. He hoped to die at 75. Born in 1957, that’s easy for him to say. His chosen death date would be in 2032. That’s a long way off, by most standards.
Personally, I view his notion with some alarm. Tomorrow is my 75th birthday.
So I’m hoping we can talk about this, preferably for a long time. Best known as one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act, Dr. Emanuel let us know his hope in an entirely lucid Atlantic Monthly article.
As he sees it, he will have accomplished most, or all, of what he hopes to do in life by age 75. His children will be married. His grandchildren will have been born. All that would remain is the long downhill trip that we call old age. He would choose to avoid it.
No, he’s not going to commit suicide. What he plans to do is less— less medical testing and care. He will embrace nature rather than fight it. He’ll do this rather than extend life through extreme measures, going through elaborate testing and by declining heart pacemakers, major surgery, etc.
For the record, I think what he plans to do, in terms of future medical care, is reasonable and admirable. I’m a lot closer to his view than to, say, Ray Kurzweil and his drive to achieve immortality through electronics.
Even so, Emanual’s view is filled with typical ageism and a prejudice in favor of youth over old age. He has a problem with productivity addiction, the notion that all of life is bounded by achievement, activity and output. Finish with that and, well, you’re done.
I know this addiction. I am still working and I’ve defined most of my life by productivity. But that’s a problem I hope to overcome. Productivity addiction is something to outgrow. It is not an agenda to require of every human being. We suffer from a lot of wrong thinking on this entire subject. Here are a few of the ways.
We’ve turned the greatest possible blessing, longer lives, into a problem.
In the last century, our life expectancies have increased more than two years for each decade. For some, expectancy has increased even more. But rather than embracing this gift and making the best of it, we’ve reduced access to lifetime income for retirees and virtually abandoned public health. We’ve failed to save both as individuals and as a nation. We’ve also allowed healthcare to become the greatest financial burden most Americans will face in their lifetimes. Surely we can get our heads around this and do better.
We’ve forgotten that life is an amazing gift.
Our unrelenting culture of self and youth leads us to focus on achievement and productivity. But life is bigger than that and humans seem to have missed the memo. Living beyond 75 may help us appreciate the gift that dwarfs anything we could ever do, the gift of life. Obsessed with what we can do, we are blinded to the awesome wonder of creation. If stepping away from work and self are what we must do to appreciate the gift of life, the burdens of old age are worthwhile.
For many, old age is a period of joy and release, not misery.
Our media-driven culture tends to emphasize the negative. That’s why we see more stories about Alzheimer’s, dementia and decrepitude than we see about happy retirees. In fact, surveys have routinely shown that old age is a period of freedom and happiness for many, while youth is often burdened with depression and anxiety. Yet there is no clue of this via print or electronic media.
The same retirement and apparent lack of productivity opens the door to generativity.
It clears the path to the unpriced generosity of care and attention that older people can devote to grandchildren and the children of others. It can afford a steady hand for younger, but troubled adults. When the need to earn is removed, a remarkable kindness can grow.
Some may be inclined dismiss the value of this time and attention as mere sentimentality. To them I can only say one thing: Just try to replace what older, non-working people do with paid services. You will quickly discover there is no way we could afford it, just as there is no way we can afford to replace even the most minimally functioning family with institutional care.