Do you really want to live to be a hundred?

“Yes, life IS precious but maybe you truly can have too much of a good thing…..”

So said commenter Eileen Williams, in response to my guest and fellow writer Joyce Mason’s article on the topic of longevity to which I am happy to be linking at the end of this article.

Ever since the Big Bang, which is the prevailing scientific theory thus far regarding how life originated in the universe, we have been confronted with the reality that creativity and destruction are woven together. Without that monumentally, unimaginably destructive Big Bang, the creative energies which ultimately produced the richly teeming life we have on planet Earth – and probably many other planets as yet undiscovered – would not have come to be.

Each tiny human, little energy flash in space/time, carries that dual spark of positive/negative, creative/destructive power. We have to learn to balance our creativity with our destructiveness – you could argue on the large scale that the whole of human history has been about that grapple. It is simply not realistic to think that we can have light without shadow at any level in our complex world, either at a personal or a collective level.

Every advance brings that duality. At this point in our history, humans from the post-Second World War Baby Boomer generation onwards are having increasingly to face a dilemma never faced before by human beings. It is this: amazing advances in public health and general medical care have enabled those of us who live in the West and increasingly in the East,  routinely to achieve life spans which were rare in previous centuries.

My grandparents almost all lived into their eighties. This was unusual for their generation. Now, people routinely live into their nineties. This is fine for many people who live to a healthy old age, then die suddenly. We all aspire to this. But this great advance carries a very dark shadow. An increasing reality, and one which is set to consume a huge proportion of the economic resources of  affluent countries, is that quality medical care now available for people in later life is prolonging many lives well beyond their ability to contribute to society, family life or their own happiness.


Duality: light and dark
Duality: light and dark

What do we do about this? It is an issue which we simply have to grapple with and resolve somehow. Shortly after finishing this article I will be heading for my local hospital to visit a dear old friend in her nineties, frail and ill, depressed and having lost entirely the spark which her freedom to get about had given her, allied to her own indomitable spirit, well into old age. She just wants to go. But medical care of high quality is helping to keep her alive.

Over the last few years I have heard some awful stories about the prolonging of lives which had, by any common sense measure, reached their natural end. A vivid but by no means uncommon example of this can be seen in the story of a friend’s grandmother in her late eighties who had a severe heart attack and would not have survived. But resuscitation techniques dragged her from the brink to endure a miserable, ill eighteen months before she eventually died.

I am horrified to think that I or my husband, in old age, could be hauled from the edge of dying to an existence in some miserable twilight until death eventually could not be staved off any more. We have living wills. But would the paramedics called to an emergency if one of us had a severe stroke, know that we do not want any intervention which would drag us back to a life of severe incapacity?

I think that in our materialist society the essence of what is a complex and multi-faceted issue is this: we are culturally afraid of death and do not know at this point how to face or manage it with compassion, wisdom, respect and common sense. We were better at coping with death hundreds of years ago than we are now. Religious faith is on the wane, secularism on the rise, and the tyranny of too much choice and too many options is increasingly holding us all to ransom.

Well, what are we going to do about it?

Dealing with end-of-life issues is very much a topical issue here in Scotland at present, with this month seeing a further presentation of an End of Life Bill to our Parliament by that gritty, courageous individualist and Independent Member of the Scottish Parliament, Margo MacDonald, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. She wants the right for herself and others to end their own lives with dignity and with the assistance of  the medical profession.

There is considerable opposition to the Bill right across the board, as can be seen from just one recent article:

But Margo, as she is affectionately known here in Scotland, has done us all a favour by triggering a nation-wide debate and discussion on the issue of what we do about end of life issues. Economically, socially, and personally, we have to find a better way of managing the issue of how we face death in general and individual’s deaths in particular. It is too costly at every level to keep sticking our collective heads in the sand. We are fortunate indeed in the UK to have a thriving Hospice movement which offers wonderful palliative care to people who have reached the last stages of their lives. But there is not enough of that type of care.

We cannot live forever. We all have to die sometime. So what are we going to do about this huge problem?

While you think about it, check out that fine writer and fellow Baby-Boomer Joyce Mason’s thoughtful piece

Do You Really Want to Live to be a Hundred?


1000 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page