You have to force yourself to get through "A Life Worth Ending" by New York's Michael Wolff, and not because it's a bad piece. It's beautifully written and evocative — it's just that it's almost too evocative for anyone who has ever watched a loved one die slowly from illness. But it's a reality check, and it's a must-read about how our obsession with living longer is actually making life harder to live for us all:
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.
Throughout the piece, Wolff drops some horrifying statistics, such as: In 1990, there were more than 3 million Americans over the age of 85, but ow there are almost 6 million. By 2050 there will be 19 million, which is approaching 5 percent of the population. The elderly currently use 50 percent of all hospital days.
And on the subject of dementia, which his mother suffers from: There are now more than 5 million demented Americans. By 2050, upward of 15 million of us will, quite simply, "have lost our minds." This year, the costs of dementia care will be $200 billion, and by 2050, it will be $1 trillion.
Yet, it's not too trite to say that the financial costs can pale in comparison to the emotional price of watching your parents take years to fade away. In many cases, if it were up to them, they wouldn't want to go like that. But what happens when they're incapable of making that decision for themselves, and medics and family members alike find it impossible to discuss the elephant in the room — death — when there are so many options that help us stay alive? Wolff's mother lives in what he describes as a "pre-coffin," attended 24/7 by two daily shifts of caregivers. "And yet, I will tell you, what I feel most intensely when I sit by my mother's bed is a crushing sense of guilt for keeping her alive," Wolff writes. "Who can accept such suffering — who can so conscientiously facilitate it?"
Wolff concludes by saying that death panels might not be so bad after all — perhaps they should be called "deliverance panels":
The alternative is nuts: to look forward to paying trillions and to bankrupting the nation as well as our souls as we endure the suffering of our parents and our inability to help them get where they're going. The single greatest pressure on health care is the disproportionate resources devoted to the elderly, to not just the old, but to the old old, and yet no one says what all old children of old parents know: This is not just wrongheaded but steals the life from everyone involved.
It doesn't have to be that way. Last weekend, my best friend's grandmother died, at home, surrounded by her family, after a few months of bedridden illness. To celebrate her life — and her fairytale-like house in an idyllic hillside area of Northern California, which served as a home base for all of her relatives over the decades — my friend and her cousins had a "last party" and played cornhole, found old bathing suits and went swimming, sang songs, and danced under the eclipse. "She was the ultimate hostess, so everything had to be just so, knowing that she would approve," my friend told me, who also cooked her favorite foods to celebrate her memory.
I have no idea how I'll deal as my parents age — it's hard to even type those words, to be honest — but stories like my friend's, and Wolff's, remind us that there's an alternative. "My bet is that, even in America, even as screwed up as our health care is, we baby-boomers watching our parents' long and agonizing deaths won't do this to ourselves," he writes. "We will surely, we must surely, find a better, cheaper, quicker, kinder way out." Let's hope so.
A Life Worth Ending [NY Mag]
Image via Oleg Golovnev/Shutterstock.