Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Boomers In The Twilight Zone

How exactly are they going to die? And how much choice should they have in it?

(Patrick Landmann/Getty Images)

I’m not particularly afraid of death. But I’m afraid of dying.

And dying can now take a very, very long time. In the past, with poorer diets, fewer medicines, and many more hazards, your life could be over a few months after being born or moments after giving birth or just as you were contemplating retirement. Now, by your sixties, you may well have close to a quarter of your life ahead of you. In 1860, life expectancy was 39.4 years. By 2060, it’s predicted to be 85.6 years. This is another deep paradigm shift in modernity we have not come close to adapting to.

For some, with their bodies intact and minds sharp, it’s a wonderful thing. But for many, perhaps most others, those final decades can be physically and mentally tough. Increasingly living alone, or in assisted living or nursing homes, the lonely elderly persist in a twilight zone of extended, pain-free — but not exactly better — life.

We don’t like to focus on this quality-of-life question because it calls into question the huge success we have had increasing the quantity of it. But it’s a big deal, it seems to me, altering our entire perspective on our lives and futures. Ricky Gervais has a great bit when he tells how he’s often told to stop smoking, or eat better, or exercise more — because leaving these vices behind will add a decade to his life. And his response is: sure, but the wrong decade! If he could get a decade in his thirties or forties again, he’d take it in an instant. But to live a crepuscular experience in your nineties? Not so much. “Remember, being healthy is basically just dying as slowly as possible,” he quipped. Not entirely wrong.

Anyone who has spent time caring for aging parents knows the drill: the physical and then the mental deterioration; the humiliations of helplessness; the often punitive absorption of drug after drug, treatment after treatment; multiple medicinal protocols of ever-increasing complexity and side effects. Staying in a family home becomes impossible for those who need 24-hour care, and for adult children to handle when they’re already overwhelmed by work and kids. Home-care workers — increasingly low-paid immigrants — can alleviate only so much.

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