When I’m 64: How to live, how to die.

Is there a course of action or proactive measure to prevent this two-sided misery?

GROWING UP, the thought of being in our 60s was as imaginable as say, mobile phones and the Internet. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
GROWING UP, the thought of being in our 60s was as imaginable as say, mobile phones and the Internet.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the songs that we will remember as long as we remember our own names, is the Beatles classic, “When I’m 64,” which appeared on the 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Paul McCartney actually wrote it in 1958 when he was 16 years old, two years after his mother, Mary, died.
We may assume that McCartney chose the number 64 for its neat measured fit and because it rhymes with “door” and “more.” Seventy-seven would just not have cut it, but 54 and 84 would have done the trick as well. So why 64? Well it is clear from the lyrics that the song is about old age and that is why 64 was the perfect match. After all, life expectancy in Britain at the time of his writing was 68. How ironic it is that two of the Fab Four never reached that age.
Growing up, the thought of being in our 60s was as imaginable as say, mobile phones and the Internet. Yet here some of us are, 64-year-olds, enjoying the use of both of the above. Nowadays, for the large majority who have survived to this age, we can look forward to many more years of meaningful, productive life. But therein lies the catch. The good fortune of living long and well creates the risk of dying long and without any semblance of quality, placing onerous burdens in the hands of those who we love and cherish. The longer our lives extend, the greater the chances that our decline will be longer, more painful and emptier than past generations.
A few months ago, I had the privilege of attending a 100th birthday party. Remarkably, the birthday girl participated in a sing-a-long of her favorite tunes, which she had personally picked for the occasion. It was truly inspiring. However, this case represents a rare exception to the stark reality that most who reach longevity will suffer lengthy cognitive and/or physical disability. Many of our shiva visits these days consist of listening respectfully as a contemporary describes the painful slide of a parent into blessed demise, often through years of suffering, with that person becoming a hollow shell of cells far removed from the vibrancy of his or her productive years.
Notwithstanding external events beyond our control (don’t we know!), as long as we have full faculty, we have the ability to charter our course in the sea of our earthly experience in pursuit of fulfillment. There is an impressive array of “how-to-live-life,” manuals, books, lectures and coaching techniques out there. They instruct us on how take control of our happiness and serenity.
Yet how many “how-to-die” manuals are there? We are so aware of living every day to the full, knowing that their number is finite. But how do we go about dealing with the waning days in the fog of pain and disorientation when nothing is possible? Where is the value in living like that at all?
How often do we see cases where children devote huge amounts of energy and effort into sustaining the husk of a parent’s life when the parent would happily relinquish life in favor of blessed oblivion? In our energetic living years, would we ever lay such obligation on our children and others around us? Is there a course of action we can take or a proactive measure to be performed to prevent this two-sided misery?
AS AN involved Jew, the precept of sanctity of life is a core value that guides me. However, we are living in an age where medicine and science have developed ways of sustaining physical existence without making parallel progress in maintaining the quality of that life. Until that happens, we must ask how we define life. It is telling that according to Midrash, the first humans did not suffer disease. They simply fell asleep and died! That made Sanctity of Life an easy principle to uphold, given that every day had the potential for vitality and meaning. The Torah tells us that on the day of his death, Moses walked, “Veyeilech Moshe” and delivered a long, coherent and stirring speech for the ages to the nation. He then had the strength to climb to the summit of a mountain where he died at the age of 120. It is that 120 that informs us when we wish each other long life. Should we not rather have the intent of wishing, vibrant, joyous life until our last day, whenever it may be?
We all hope to live long and die quickly. But just in case that does not happen, I personally have prepared instructions for my dear ones urging them to do whatever they can, within the law and their sense of morality and conviction, not to prolong my life and even to advance my death if it is clear that living has become hell. Having had personal experience with this phenomenon, my dear ones know with clarity my understanding as to when that tipping point would occur, physically or cognitively.
And perhaps the time is ripe for a discussion on a societal level amongst our peers as to how best to prepare ourselves and make provision for the day when it really is time to go.
May we all live well to a right old age.