This morning I read an interview with Zeke Emanuel – that’s the healthcare Emanuel, vs. the Mayor Emanuel – who spoke of his commitment to let go of urge to retain life after a certain age. 75 in fact. And by letting go of life, he spoke of not taking prescription drugs and signing his DNR. After 75, he says, our lives are basically over and we should let go of trying to extend them, of replacing quality with quantity. [Note: the article I read was not his original article in the Atlantic, but a 2019 interview with him, where the author started by asking, “Now that 75 is quickly approaching, have you changed your perspective?” Unfortunately, I read the article on my phone, lost the link, and couldn’t re-find it by Googling. So my interpretation of his position, since it is based on a short interview that was following up on the Atlantic article, which I have not read, may not be accurate.]
I’m not sure how I feel about this. I know a number of people who have healthy, active lives through their 70s and into their 80s. A friend’s mother lived to be over 100 and was healthy and active until her mid-90’s, which Emanuel says is an outlier. Perhaps he’s right.
For many years, I assumed my mother would be one of these people. She was active and healthy, an adventurer who didn’t work outside the home until she was in her 40’s, and then got a combined accounting and computer science degree, earned her pilot’s license, joined the GAO to see the world and was stationed in Thailand, Ethiopia, and Paris before finally retiring. But she didn’t slow down then either, continuing to travel, getting remarried and then divorced again, flipping houses, managing rental properties, and launching then retiring a house-painting business. Through much of this, she retained her health.
Then it became clear that she couldn’t manage the enormous house in the woods, where she lived alone with two huge dogs. And when she was no longer able to bounce back from an ignored broken wrist or pneumonia, my sister grew worried and persuaded mom to move out of the woods into town. After some initial resistance, mom agreed – perhaps lured by the potential of influencing her grandchildren – and dove into buying yet another house, and gut rehabbing it.
And then, in her early 70s, she did what Emanuel says he would do, and stopped taking her blood pressure and liver meds. And ended up in the hospital. A DNR didn’t come into it – she wasn’t on life support – but it became abundantly clear to her that she would not be able to continue to live outside the hospital without her meds. And, due to the earlier pneumonia, her doctors also recommended that she sleep with oxygen at home – something my mother equates with elderly, bedridden people, and refuses to do. Which I think is dumb, because a lot of people use CPAPs and oxygen and live active lives. And she started the all-too-familiar cycle for the elderly of bouncing in and out of the hospital, accompanied by a series of falls which caused head-injuries, and required serious PT.
Then the depression set in and she stopped living a full and active life. She stopped seeing people. She stopped participating in activities. She pays lip service to her PT, going through the motions at the hospital gym — a great idea in theory that Washington State provides elderly people who have been in the hospital. In practice, the physical therapist ignores her and she never chats with people there either. When I encourage her to get together with her old friends or to join book clubs (her idea, not mine), she smiles distantly and takes a nap. She’s napping far too much for my comfort, sleeping restlessly at night, napping after every meal and whenever she gets bored or tired of arguing with us about her depression.
Cognitive decline? I don’t think so yet – she’s still sharp as a tack aside from living on the Nile about her depression. She’s not actively suicidal but she is certainly not actively living; it seems like she’s sitting around waiting to die.
Could she still turn a corner, regain her strength and do more of what she loves to do – travel and gardening and politics? I think there’s still hope (a word I don’t use much since I connotate it with lost causes) but time is running out. Even younger people find it hard to rebuild strength and stamina after a week or weeks of recuperation. Mom’s been sitting out life for three years and it would be an uphill battle requiring commitment, compassion, and patience — qualities she’s never been great at. Maybe I’m the one in denial now. I look at my husband and his sisters, taking desperate measures to encourage his mother – in her 90s – to exercise more in hopes she will show some physical improvement, and wonder if I’m doing the same.
I wonder whether Zeke will find himself in a similar situation when he stops taking his meds. I agree with him that there is an overemphasis on a search for eternal life, often led – as it historically always has been – by those with wealth and power who are so afraid of losing it, even to death, that they pour energy into edge-science to try to keep it from slipping through their fingers.
And, at the same time, I reflect on those who are not as lucky as Emanuel to have the luxury to enjoy all the things we dreamed of doing in parallel with our working lives. I have been luckier than most – heck, how many people visit Antarctica? – but many people are waiting until they retire to realize their dreams. And many look forward to the day when they can retire, even if it doesn’t come early. And many won’t have the luxury of retirement. To say that they won’t have anything to new to contribute to society after that 75, seems cruel to me.
Thought-provoking and a little bleak. And it motivates me to do more of the things that I encourage mom to do – to exercise, to get out of the house and stop watching TV or browsing the internet so much, to make new friends and explore new ideas. It’s hard, no matter what age you are, to make yourself break old patterns. For me, it’s work. Even now, in the fallow between jobs, I find it hard to make time for anything other than work, focusing on the completion of a certification or researching another job opportunity instead of relaxing and reaching out to friends, sending out my books for publication, writing, cooking, taking classes…
There’s so much to do and it feels like there is so little time to do it all…