The October, 2014 Atlantic considers the prospect of average lifespans reaching 100—I wrote about that possibility here. In the same issue there is an article by Ezekiel Emmanuel titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” Emanuel indicates that his preferences are based on his personal view of the good life, and makes explicit that he is not saying that those who want to live longer than 75 are immoral or wrong. Still, the reasons he gives for preferring shorter lifespans aren’t limited to the peculiarities of his own beliefs or anticipated life course but instead cover the physical and cognitive declines that become increasingly more likely with age. His views are stated in a way apparently designed to convince others whose conceptions of the good life don’t include frailty, senility, or dependence.
So, why hope that your life doesn’t last much beyond age 75? Emanuel makes the following points:
- Increased lifespans don’t translate into more years free of physical limitations. In fact, the number of years during which older adults are likely to have some sort of functional impairment is increasing.
- One in three Americans over age 85 have dementia, and the number of older adults with dementia is projected to triple by 2050.
- Creativity peaks in midlife, then declines markedly. Other mental functions also decline.
- A very long life, especially when one is disabled, can negatively impact children and grandchildren.
The last of these assertions receives the least documentation and seems particularly controversial. The first three are well-established facts, but that doesn’t mean that they establish 75 years as the ideal length of a life. Each point implies some additional premise having to do with what is valued—for the first, that death is preferable to living with disabilities; for the second, that death is better than dementia; and for the third, that a life with diminished but still not markedly impaired mental functions is not worth living. I can’t agree with any of these–though, having seen my dad suffer from dementia, I have most sympathy for Emanuel’s preference for death over severe cognitive decline.
Let me say a little about Emanuel’s first point–that physical limitations and disability make life undesirable. There are people of all ages, not just the elderly, who are blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound, and the like. Wouldn’t Emanuel’s reasoning apply to all of these? Does it make any sense to brand all those lives as not worth living? Thinking just of seniors with disabilities, I’ve known a number of older adults with significant physical limitations who were still vibrant, joyful, and deeply engaged with others. Even those whose impairments make life a struggle often have a deep sense of purpose that elevates their lives.
I think of some of the nuns in David Snowdon’s study of elderly members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame who, unable to do the normal work of the order, took prayer to be their work. They lifted up the needs of the world to God, and in faith believed that that form of ministry was as important as any other. Are their lives not worth living? Aren’t we all better off living in a world in which nonagenarian nuns are praying for the well-being of all of us? I for one am glad that they and many like them haven’t responded to the ravages of age by refusing medical care in hopes of a quick death.
Emanuel’s facts about physical and mental decline don’t constitute a convincing case that the years past age 75 aren’t worth living. I would like to say a bit more about Emanuel’s last contention, that long lives are likely to negatively impact other family members. I’ll save that for another post, though.