Barbara Kay: For me, another 10 years or so sounds about right

Tuesday January 17th, 2017

Matt Rourke / Associated Press
In 2014 Ezekiel J. Emanuel, oncologist and bioethicist, wrote an article in The Atlantic magazine with the eye-catching title, “Why I hope to die at 75.”

There was a woman at our synagogue I knew superficially, a widow about 20 years older than me, a fine amateur artist. At long last liberated from onerous maternal and breadwinning obligations, her aging father’s needs began to consume the time she had finally carved out to devote to painting.

She would bring her father to synagogue, one of the few pleasures left to him in his radically diminished life. This went on for many years. One day — I think he was well into his nineties, very zombie-like in his wheelchair by then, and she probably 75 — I asked her how her father was getting on, and she burst out, “When is it my turn?”

Now in my mid-seventies, I often think back to that cri du coeur. My father died at 67 and my mother in her late seventies (but already lost to Alzheimers years before). So I did not experience what I think of as the Prince Charles syndrome. Precious few children are born to inherit real crowns, but none of us is truly sovereign over our lives while the older generation lives on. Which we don’t mind up to a point. And then we do. It’s human nature.

There is an optimal psychological age for losing your parents. Forty is too young, 50is very sad but not completely tragic, 60is quite appropriate, and at 70, if your parents are still alive, you’ve definitely reached “when is it my turn” territory. At 70, when the nursing home calls with the news, nobody rends their garments and falls to their knees in lamentation.

I hasten to add that this is not building up as an argument for euthanasia. Even if I live to 100, which I heartily hope not to, I would still want to shuffle off the stage in the traditional way. By then of course I would have been for many years refusing not only heroic but even cowardly measures to keep me alive, apart from pain meds and a respirator (suffocation is not how I want to go).

If I had my druthers, of course, I’d drop dead at the optimal moment, namely 10 minutes before my kids begin to think “when is it my turn,” and ideally in the midst of a ping pong game with Ronny.

In 2014 Ezekiel J. Emanuel, oncologist and bioethicist, wrote an article in The Atlantic magazine with the eye-catching title, “Why I hope to die at 75.” The title was misleading, because he only means 75 is the age at which he will feel his life is complete and not worth prolonging by artificial means. By then he will, like me, have seen his children grown and “in the middle of their own rich lives.” He will have seen his grandchildren’s lives launched. He thinks the American obsession with diet, extreme fitness and “manic desperation to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible” is absurd. Over the past 50 years, he says, “health care hasn’t slowed the aging process so much as it has slowed the dying process.” Emanuel isn’t interested in a long dying process.

One in three people 85 and older has Alzheimers, Emanuel notes. There will be a 300 per cent increase in the number of older Americans with dementia by 2050. Half of people over 80 will have functional limitations. Grim! But even if he stays healthy, he knows he is unlikely to be the rare exception whose creativity does not diminish. Anyone in my age bracket knows that’s true. I used to be sharp as a tack. Now I am only as sharp as a fork tine.

All parents are a “looming presence” to their children. And I would add that the more dynamic and interesting the parent, the bigger the shadow they cast. When they stop being dynamic and interesting but live on, the compensating warmth of their rays is gone, but the shadow stays.

At 75, Emanuel’s plan is to stop taking preventative measures like colonoscopies and cardiac stress tests. No chemo, no bypass surgery. No flu shots. And even no antibiotics. For lung disease he will accept treatment to relieve feelings of suffocation and of course pain meds, but that’s about it. No dialysis. Only palliative care.

Will he follow through? He isn’t even 60 yet, so 75 seems old to him. He’ll likely change his mind when he gets there. I intend to follow his model — if and when I’m 85. For the children, you understand.

In his galvanizing 1969 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, Phillip Roth wrote, “A Jewish man with parents alive is a 15-year old boy.” I asked my son if he felt that was true. He quickly assured me he didn’t. I told him he was a very good boy and reminded him to eat his spinach.

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