Sometime around my mid-50’s I began to ask myself a question: how long should I want to live? My father had died at 64, my mother at 85, my various uncles and aunts in their 60s and 70s. Occasional news stories, always with a picture, reported on those few people who made it to 100. I am now 85 and still turning that question over in my mind.
I could serve as a geriatric poster-child for my age: some Parkinson’s disease, fairly advanced emphysema, arthritis, moderately severe asthma, and elevated but controlled high blood pressure—a typical potpourri of those chronic diseases that now mark the elderly. I call this the great trade-off. Earlier generations lived shorter lives and had faster deaths. We now live longer but medical advances typically give us a slower death from those diseases.
I did over time answer the question of how long I should want to live. First, to live long enough to do most of those things that life makes possible: to become educated, have a satisfying career, see a bit of the world, develop a circle of friends, and to marry and raise a family. I have now done all those things, well and fully (if not always perfectly). Second, I want to die at a stage in life when those in my family and community see no significant social loss to society in my death even though (I hope) they will personally miss me.
It was once acceptable to say, with few tears, that “he died a natural death.” But now that death has been medicalized, a specific disease that caused the death is required.
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.