Death is the elephant in the room: it’s there but most people refuse to acknowledge it. Death is normal. We live. We die. It doesn’t discriminate. It’s inevitable. As Kahlil Gibran told us in The Prophet, ‘… life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.’
No one doubts that death stings. It can be tragic, unwarranted, untimely, and vicious. And, even though few people die of something called ‘old age’, it’s generally accepted that the longer you live the closer your are to exiting. So, make sure that you die happy.
While acknowledging the wonder and achievements of modern medicine, Atul Gawande (Being Mortal), a surgeon, believes that modern medicine, when faced with the realities of ageing and death, has over-reached itself. Today’s health professionals, he says, have come to see death as a failure and they fall back on ‘medicalising’ the ageing process with expensive remedies, more drugs, more procedures, more institutional care, and new forms of therapy. And, even when all hopes fade, conversations about assisted dying usually involve a medical approach.
There are limitations of what medicine can hope to offer. So Gawande advocates, as we age, not only medical care but also achieving a life with meaning. He quotes surveys, which show that those who are aware of impending death wish not only to prolong their life and relieve their suffering but also to strengthen their relationships with family and friends. They want to live more authentically and with greater integrity; to feel that their life has been of value.
In order to achieve this, oldies need help to pursue quality of life rather than prolonging life by extraordinary medical means. It’s like Seneca told us a couple of thousand years ago, adding years to life without adding life to those years is a waste of time.