Some people deliberately make provocative statements just to stir things up. Political talk show hosts do it all the time. Reality TV show “actors” do it. And so do writers, especially in this day when successful journalism is gauged by the number of comments, shares and reposts.
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel generated as much or more controversy as he intended with his article “Hope I Die at 75” published in The Atlantic (October 2014).
In the piece, Emanuel, director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, includes provocations such as this:
“But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”
AGING IS AS UNPREDICTABLE AS IT IS INEVITABLE
Here is what disturbs me about Emanuel’s article. No one knows for certain what they will want, how they will feel or who they will become 10, 20 or 50 years from now. It is naïve at best and ignorant and arrogant at worst to think you know your future, especially when it comes to health and aging, which is as unpredictable as it is inevitable.
As a public relations counselor for long-term care providers I have made this case often to rebuff claims by individuals who declare they would rather die than live a feeble and frail life in a nursing home.
Sadly, it is not uncommon for a younger, healthier individual to whisper “Just kill me” or “Put a pillow over my head” upon witnessing the plight of a very old, frail and infirmed person. Two things are not taken into account, unfortunately, with such disparaging perspectives: 1) The objectionable remark is incredibly disrespectful to the individual who is challenged to value every moment of life; and 2) No one knows with certainty the value they will place on their own life, given similar circumstances, until they personally experience it.
Avoiding ageism, as with all forms of prejudice and negative stereotyping, obligates observers and communicators to carefully view situations from another’s perspective.
Walking aids, feeding tubes and memory care may not be standard issue, but for some these supports are not optional. Yet no physical or mental decline is likely to be as frustrating or challenging or sad as accepting the notion that for all the individual effort, some more fortunate observers still reflect: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Dr. Bill Thomas, director of Eden Alternative and author of What Are Old People For? and Second Wind, was among many authorities prompted to respond to Emanuel’s article. He said on his ChangingAging blog:
“There is a simple reason why Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s essay on not wanting to live past the age of 75 created a storm of well-justified outrage. He, like millions of other people his age (and younger) have difficulty imagining any future self that is not simply a continuation of his current self. Dr. Emanuel’s current self is a very busy man with lots of responsibility, many deadlines and too little time. The idea of living the way he does now with the additional burdens that he supposes are an inevitable part of aging seems quite unattractive. Because he cannot see or feel what it is really like to be an elder, he substitutes our culture’s blatant ageism for foresight and declares — defeat.”
Dr. Thomas concludes: “The resulting epically tone-deaf essay is compelling evidence that we need to change the way our society thinks about aging.”