In the September 17 issue of Atlantic Monthly, physician Zeke Emanuel explains why he hopes to die by the age of 75. His reasoning is that by 75, he will have “made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make.” He complains that our society is stretching life out to the point where only infirmity and dementia await us. Further, by allowing the elderly to live long enough to become infirm, we are draining resources that might otherwise be spent “saving more young people. “
Over the last 50 years, life expectancy has grown at a dramatic rate. In the 1930s it was 59.7 years. “…by 1960, 69.7; by 1990 75.4. Today a newborn can hope to live about 79 years.” And what do we do with our increased longevity, Emanuel asks before answering his question. “The American immortal, once a vital figure in his or her profession and community, is happy to cultivate avocational interests, to take up bird watching, bicycle riding, pottery, and the like.”
At 57, Dr. Emanuel is too young to speak with authority about how he will feel at 75. At his age, he assumes the only productive life consists of raising children and having a career. But at 75, he will be free to turn his attention to other interests. Gardening and nurturing grandchildren may well prove to be as satisfying as all that has gone before.
If society accepted the doctor’s notion of productivity we might think that 59.7 is a better age to die. By then we will have lived long enough to raise our children and make our mark on our careers. But at 57, Dr. Emanuel already knows a good deal of happiness consists of enjoying his off-spring as grown-up companions as well as children. He is too cavalier, too unappreciative of the gifts science and medicine have provided after years of research.
Emanuel’s surface opinion aside, there are some underlying assumptions that are troubling. Is he suggesting that without peak health and mental acuity there is no joy in life? If so, what about the young who live with mental and physical handicaps? Is there no room in his world for an autistic child? What about the artist who struggles with depression? Or the paralyzed solider? Should we be glad if someone put these people out of their miseries?
Why pit youth and age against each other in the first place? No natural antipathy exists between them. Emanuel says the old steal resources from the young. But the world would be a poor, poor place without grandparents who dote upon their grandchildren. The love between them is a resource not a deficit. And shall we ignore the wisdom society gains by having a generational spread?
Emanuel’s world smacks of a Spartan dystopia I could never accept. Life isn’t about feeling vital. It’s about learning, loving and sharing. We can do that at any age. We can do that among the infirm and the dying.