No Country for Old Men Over 75

Photo by Fabrizio Azzarri on Unsplash

What is the value of a consoling arm around your shoulders as you let out a good cry? Or the attentive gaze of a friendly coworker listening to you vent about your overbearing boss? Or the well-timed joke meant to momentarily distract you from the mountain of bills sitting on the kitchen table? Or the familiar smile of the one true love who makes your heart do somersaults every time you lay your eyes upon them?

Discussions about the value of human life often revolve around contributions and achievements that can be measured — the number of records set over the course of an athlete’s career; the number of jobs created by the pioneering business owner; the number of Oscars awarded to the world-famous actor; the number of best-selling books published by the eccentric author. We like numbers because they’re simple and concrete. But numbers aren’t good storytellers. They don’t capture the importance of our daily interactions with the people who mean the most to us, and therefore can’t be used to convey the importance of those relationships.

My good friend Melissa, whom I’ve known since high school, gave birth to her son about five years ago and subsequently chose to be a stay-at-home parent. She cooks all her son’s meals, helps him with his homework, taught him how to make a snowman, and even plays video games with him. In all the years I’ve known her, I have never seen her act with as much focus and determination as she has since giving birth to her first and only child. She is happier now than she has ever been at any prior stage of her life, and it’s been a privilege to witness her joy firsthand.

Mathematically speaking, it’s impossible to calculate the value of the relationship between Melissa and her son. You can’t put a number on the satisfaction that a parent derives from raising a child, nor on the guidance, wisdom, and comfort that a child derives from time spent with a loving parent.

The relationships we have with our parents, our children, our spouses, our friends, our coworkers, our neighbors — you can’t attach a numerical value to any of them because that value is incalculable. It is in those relationships where we find a reason to keep living, to keep doing, to keep being. It is in those relationships where we find a resource of infinite value that transcends both the mathematical and the material.

It is in those relationships where we find love.

In his 2014 Atlantic essay “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” Doctor Ezekiel Emanuel, a University of Pennsylvania oncologist who recently joined President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force, doesn’t talk much about love, nor does he spend much time talking about the relationships that motivate our elderly forebears to continuously seize the day, day after day, for as many days as they have left to live. He instead focuses most of his attention on the many life-altering obstacles that human beings encounter as their biological clocks wind closer to zero — cognitive decline, a lack of creativity, memory loss, and so forth— and that he himself wants absolutely nothing to do with.

Notwithstanding the title assigned to his essay, Emanuel doesn’t necessarily want to die at the precise age of 75. He simply won’t do anything to extend his life beyond that point. No more routine colonoscopies. No antibiotics if he gets an infection. No chemotherapy if he’s diagnosed with cancer. He has no enthusiasm for an existence disrupted by the diminished faculties that frequently accompany old age. He made that clear in his essay, and then reiterated his feelings on the subject last year in a follow-up interview with MIT Technology Review.

I don’t entirely blame Emanuel for feeling the way he does about growing old. I myself have always said that when I arrive at the point in my life where I can no longer do any of the things I enjoy doing — reading, writing, hiking, and studying the stars — I might be tempted to decline medical interventions aimed at fending off the Grim Reaper for just a little while longer, especially if I find myself single and alone at that moment in time. In that respect, I completely understand where Emanuel is coming from.

I also feel compelled to denounce the bad-faith actors who have used Emanuel’s words in the Atlantic to try and paint him as a cartoonish, quasi-genocidal villain plotting to kill off all the old people in America. As much as I may disagree with him, Emanuel is, by all accounts, a respected and influential figure in the medical community, and his perspective on aging is not as uncommon as one might think.

In fact, I would say that the individual components of his central argument in the Atlantic essay are eminently reasonable. His obvious aversion to spending the last years of his life idle and fatigued, his critique of our collective obsession with stretching our lives beyond their natural limits without proper consideration of the associated costs, and his visceral refusal to be rendered an anchor around the necks of his progeny are all sentiments routinely expressed not just by philosophers, ethicists, and medical professionals, but even by the elderly themselves.

Yet when those components coalesce into Emanuel’s final verdict — that the utility of the average person’s life diminishes so dramatically after 75 that they should reconsider whether it’s worth extending their life at all — it inspires an instant, reflexive revulsion in his critics, including me.

Emanuel has missed something — something very big and obvious. His conclusion regarding the value of human life so greatly overemphasizes the importance of productivity that he has lost all sight of the essential truth that it is love that imparts purpose and meaning to our lives — and that isn’t any less true at 80 than it is at 20, 30, or 40.

Take a healthy, able-bodied, 20-year-old man and put him in the middle of a frozen wasteland, alone, in a post-apocalyptic world devoid of human life. What does he have to life for? Who does he have to live for?

The answers you’re looking for are nothing and no one, respectively.

Now take that same man, age him 60 years, put him in a retirement home, and give him a walker, bad hearing, and age-related memory loss. But give him grandkids, too — grandkids who love sitting around the fireplace while grandpa reads them their favorite fairy tales and spoils them with butterscotch candies and soda pop.

Or reunite him with an old friend, like a war buddy with whom he served in Vietnam. Or give him a girlfriend, even! Perhaps somewhere in his retirement home, a lonely widower in need of companionship is waiting to be swept off her feet by a worthy and willing suitor.

Now that old man has someone to love. And as long as he has someone to love, he has something to give. And as long as he has something to give, he has a very good reason to continue to exist.

The wonderful thing about love is that it’s something that can be provided by just about any person at just about any age. It makes no difference whether you’re a fresh-faced teenager gearing up for your first semester of college or a recently retired grandparent just starting to settle in for your golden years; neither the young nor the old are any less capable than the other of offering their love to those who need it.

Because it is so simple and easy to create, love is perhaps the most bountiful commodity you’ll find anywhere in this world. But despite its abundance, the demand for love always seems to exceed its supply. We consume it faster than we’re able to produce it, resulting in a perpetual shortage that has only ever been made manageable by the love of our elders.

It doesn’t much matter how old you may already be or how much you’ve already begun to slow down; so long as you’re prepared to love, you have something of immeasurable value to offer the world. That’s the variable that Emanuel has left out of his equation on aging, and it’s more than enough reason for the elderly to stick around as long as they’re willing, able, and happy to do so.

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D.A. Kirk

D.A. Kirk

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Outer space enthusiast. Japanese history junkie. I write about politics, culture, and mental illness. Disagreement is a precursor to progress.