The unintended consequence of promoting longevity

Charles Cowling

Michael_Wolff

 

Michael Wolff describes caring for his eldery, dementing mother in New York magazine. It’s a long piece and it will concentrate your mind. You’ll brood on it.  Warning: once you start, you won’t be able to put it down. 

…what I feel most intensely when I sit by my mother’s bed is a crushing sense of guilt for keeping her alive. Who can accept such suffering—who can so conscientiously facilitate it? 

“Why do we want to cure cancer? Why do we want everybody to stop smoking? For this?” wailed a friend of mine with two long-ailing and yet tenacious in-laws. 

Age is one of the great modern adventures, a technological marvel—we’re given several more youthful-ish decades if we take care of ourselves. Almost nobody, at least openly, sees this for its ultimate, dismaying, unintended consequence: By promoting longevity and technologically inhibiting death, we have created a new biological status held by an ever-growing part of the nation, a no-exit state that persists longer and longer, one that is nearly as remote from life as death, but which, unlike death, requires vast service, indentured servitude really, and resources. 

This is not anomalous; this is the norm. 

The traditional exits, of a sudden heart attack, of dying in one’s sleep, of unreasonably dropping dead in the street, of even a terminal illness, are now exotic ways of going. The longer you live the longer it will take to die. The better you have lived the worse you may die. The healthier you are—through careful diet, diligent exercise, and attentive medical scrutiny—the harder it is to die. Part of the advance in life expectancy is that we have technologically inhibited the ultimate event. We have fought natural causes to almost a draw. If you eliminate smokers, drinkers, other substance abusers, the obese, and the fatally ill, you are left with a rapidly growing demographic segment peculiarly resistant to death’s appointment—though far, far, far from healthy.

Read it all here

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Jed
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Jed

We have lost the understanding? the compassion? the intelligence? the mercy? to allow people to die. We are very good at keeping people alive – which I think is different from ‘saving’ life. I attended an end of life conference and heard that the NHS spends more money on keeping you alive in the last 2 years of your existence than all the rest of your healthcare budget put together. I hear several times a month families who tell me that an aged Mum or Dad had ‘stopped eating’. My father chose this method to hasten his own end. I’m… Read more »

Chris the trainee
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Chris the trainee

Charles thank you. I agree completely. As to polls, I would happily fill out a poll. Usually. But not this one. Because it ain’t that easy. Would I kill my mother ? After 30 years as a police officer the answer is a no. But would I let her slip away quietly without a fuss ? without question yes. But that requires a degree of cooperation between the state and the individual that is quite unimaginable at this time. I’d like to think my children or my wife could have that sort of choice about my life, but it just… Read more »

Charles
Guest

Chris, it was brave of you to write that — and salutary. Thank you. Your experience is unimaginable, yet all too common. I think it’s perfectly understandable that you should have felt helpless, and I think that’s how society still feels. There are huge decisions to be made at the ethical level, and the problem is only going to get worse. The history of medicine is one of triumph over death. Perhaps one way to start is to substitute ‘live saving’ with ‘death postponing’, and for medicine to adapt to the problem it has created along with the blessings it… Read more »

Kitty
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Kitty

My mum died six weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. She was a young 65 and up until her diagnosis she had been working full-time. When I was looking after her and even though I didn’t want to prolong her suffering, I wasn’t brave enough to give her an over-dose morphine. Looking back I can’t believe how anxious I was to measure out the exact dose. Mercifully she died two days after going into a hospice.

Kathryn Edwards
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Kathryn Edwards

This article is a gift. Time and again, the report comes back from the front line that medics emphasise the wrong bit of the dilemma: the smart thing to consider is how one (or one’s elderly kin) will be placed AFTER the life-saving surgical intervention. In our rush to avoid trouble we confuse quantity of life with the quality of it. What happened to quitting while ahead or dying with one’s boots on? If we weren’t so insulated from the realities of dying and death, we might be more inclined to prepare and take responsibility for our own outcomes. http://www.euthanasia.cc/vess.html

Poppy Mardall
Guest

I LOVE the polls! Poll us Charles. POLL US!!!

Charles
Guest

Poppy, I could post a poll to find out whether people want polls – and no one would fill it in. The problem with this blog is that its readers are stealth readers, overwhelmingly. It can be very dispiriting.

Jed
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Jed

Is not a poll of 2 ( say Poppy and me) as valid (maybe more valid) as a poll of 200?

Chris the trainee
Guest
Chris the trainee

I debated long and hard before blogging this piece. Like the author, I had the dilemma: do you make it public ? And who am I doing it for ? But there are so many people out there in the same situation, that the word needs to be spread and people need to know that theirs is not an isolated case. It’s an interesting article, and on the face of it, quite cold hearted. That is unless you have lived with a relative with dementia or similar diseases. This piece brought back so many memories. It’s not just the states,… Read more »

Manasa Majumdar
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My aunt gave me the link to this website, and she was totally right
in every way, Keep up the great work!

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

“The unintended consequence of promoting longevity.” What an utter, utter understatement. Thank you, Michael Wolff, for dissecting yourself and pinning your ripped open, screaming soul to the inspection table for all the world to see. You made me howl with your matter-of-fact description of this death by slow torture of your mother, compounded by the obligatory complicity of her family in this crime. It is indeed a holocaust. We live in a world where we are so scared of surrendering to death that a nightmarish living death takes precedence, with the law not so much protecting the living as threatening… Read more »