Bioethics Blogs

Wisdom Does Come with Age

Reminders of our finitude always lurk close by, like Ezekiel Emanuel’s article in last month’s Atlantic, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” The head of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the National Institutes of Health gives reasons for not living beyond 75: inevitable decline, disability, incapacity, and diminishment of “creativity, originality, and productivity.” According to Emanuel, we wish to be remembered for our good years, prior to decline.

There are grains of truth here. Many of us “die” well before we are officially declared dead. I’ve seen patients kept alive for far too long in permanent vegetative states, while family dynamics, emotions, finances and scarce medical resources are depleted. We pay a high price for medical “progress.” I also know thriving, vibrant elderly, themselves significantly disabled and incapacitated.

Emanuel’s posture represents a deep-rooted cultural symptom — our fixation on productivity. “I produce, therefore I am of value.” From early on, we are conditioned to focus on performance, “making something of ourselves.” Even our leisure time is instrumental, a re-energizing in order to produce. And via our devices, work invades our leisure.

Retired SUNY Social Welfare Professor Edmund Sherman wisely writes of this in “Contemplative Aging,” particularly the quandary of retirement when people persistently ask, “So, what will you do?”

Now for the symptom’s underlying cause: We lack a cohesive, coherent, integrated philosophy of life-stages so that growing old beyond retirement years plays no meaningful role. It’s a stage we ignore, downplay, fear, or resist — a phantom stage, an anticipated accident waiting to happen.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.