Liah Greenfeld Ph.D.

The Modern Mind

Life Is Too Short. Or Is It?

Medical advances in prolonging life may have unintended consequences.

Posted Jul 21, 2013

Here is a comment (from soxchick382) that appeared today in my hometown’s Sunday paper magazine supplement, The Boston Globe, in response to a sad story about taking care of one’s elderly senescent mother, a story with which many in the baby boom generation can identify: “I have a son, but in no way do I want him to spend a significant part of his mental, physical, and financial resources caring for me as a doddering old woman. I don’t want to be a doddering old woman. I would love to just be able to take a ‘peace’ pill and die in dignity when I am ready, instead of being forced to suffer through the misery of old age."

A “peace” pill, “being forced to suffer through the misery of old age” —this makes one think, doesn’t it? My mother, who will be 85 next month and whose mind is still sharper than a surgical scalpel, repeats now and then: one must die in time. She was a doctor, she watched many deaths. She believes that the ability of medical science in developed countries to prolong life into the 80s and beyond is nothing to celebrate and, in fact, actively contributes to unnecessary suffering.  My mother is tired of life – and since my father’s death eleven years ago, in 2002, has often wished she were dead. They were married for 53 years, with his death meaningful life ended for her – there was nothing to live for anymore. His death – sudden, on the operation table, at 75 -- was a terrible loss for all of us. For two years I, his eldest daughter, 48 when this happened, was overwhelmed by grief. Yet, before that, I had been consciously happy, that is, I realized that my life was a truly happy one, full to the brim of love and passionate interest in the surrounding world, which make life worth living. My father knew that he was going to die: we have discovered this in his diary. He was a doctor too, and a very good doctor, in contrast to the young and eager to cut surgeons who operated on him. He knew that, given the regimen of medications he was on, if operated, he would die of the loss of blood; his doctors, who suggested an exploratory surgery, missed this essential detail. Signing the consent form, my father was, therefore, consciously signing his death warrant. He was a man interested in so many things, always excited about something, always full of projects. In fact, at the time of his death he was learning a new language. And he was afraid of dying, as he wrote in the last entry of his diary, adding, though, but can life after 75 be considered life? I understand now that he died, as my mother says, “in time.”

After his death, my mother suddenly became very old. Her health drastically deteriorated. She started dying and has been dying for eleven years. She does nothing to make her life more comfortable; without actively doing anything to end it, she wants it to end. We, her three children, love her and are terrified of losing her. This fear permeates my life. I brace myself constantly against the moment when it will happen.

When is the time? Shouldn’t we at least think of this before further advancing our ability to prolong physical existence, without at the same time being able to fill the additional years with meaning? The longer we live, the greater part of our lives we may be spending dying. Is dying worth living? When does death begin? Physically, probably, with the loss of sufficient health for the enjoyment of such simple things as food, fresh air, spring sunshine. Spiritually, when fear replaces hope as the predominant emotion in looking forward. When both health and hope are gone, should not people have the right for their “peace” pill?

I still believe that hope lasts, and life is worth living, as long as there is love and interest in the surrounding world …      

Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience

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