Talent or Delusions
I don’t watch a lot of television. Except lately that seems a little less true. Last year I got a bit hooked on America’s Got Talent for a while. I was hooked until I discovered that talent was defined as a guy willing to get hit in his privates with baseball bats and the like and somehow endure the pain. After that, I pretty much decided there were better things to do with my time. But the other night the TV was on and when I went by I saw this little old lady dancing and it caught my eye. I recognized her from an article I had seen a few weeks back. Her name is Tao Porchon-Lynch and at 96, she is the worlds oldest yoga teacher and apparently dancer on America’s Got Talent as well.
She is a sight to behold for sure. It’s admirable. I’m happy for her. But I don’t aspire to be her. I have neither a wish to be Debby Downer or self-deprecating, but realistically speaking, Tao is an anomaly, not the new poster child for 96 is the new 46. Yes, people are living longer than our predecessors, and I hope to be among that crowd. That said, the reality is that living longer doesn’t mean we are all going to be capable of doing in our 80’s and 90’s what we did in our 20’s and 30’s or even our 50’s and 60’s. Why hold ourselves to this as the baseline standard?
I’ve been reading “Being Mortal” by Atul Gwande. It is a phenomenal book. But don’t pick it up unless you have time to read it in a relatively short period of time. The first half of the book is pretty tough to take in because it doesn’t sugar coat the harsh realities of aging. The goal is not to depress us, but rather to wake us up to accepting the inevitability of death. The author’s wish for his readers is that we live out our end with autonomy and agency rather than abdicating that responsibility to the medical community. Gwande, a physician, asserts that our society has turned dying into a medical war and people are often “sustained” and kept safe to achieve a quantity of life. Further, He believes this strategy comes at the expense of achieving quality of life.
In our society, old age is something to be dreaded, feared and managed. I’m as guilty as the next guy. Yes, I’m used to my hearing aids, but I don’t embrace my aching joints, the lines in my face, or even the ever exposed “blonde” roots near my scalp. That said, I can contemplate at least intellectually that I’m logistically closer to death than I am to my birth. Emotionally, and perhaps this is only because I don’t consider having to confront it any time soon, I feel reasonably at peace with the prospect. I have lived a life I feel content with and have had the luxury of far more than I ever anticipated possible as a young girl. Still with the responsibility for my own young children, I’d like the opportunity to stick around at least long enough to ensure their launch into the world.
Beyond that point, I hope to have the presence of mind and the ability of body that will allow me to bead when I want to, eat and sleep when I want to, and to hang out with people or be alone if I choose. I hope as most people do, to not spend my last segment of life either hooked up to life support or in a nursing home. But the point is, most people currently in those conditions, also prefer not to be.
My mother died in a nursing home. She didn’t want to go into one and I knew that when I put her there. I felt I had no other option. She broke her hip and became immobilized. I work, have a family and neither, she nor I, had the funds to hire round the clock care for her. This is neither confession nor persuasion of justification, but rather an illustration of how these matters so often transpire. They happen because of the lack of a viable alternative.
Being Mortal is an invitation to consider an alternative to the status quo of how we currently manage aging and death. Instead of ignoring its realities and holding the fantasy in our mind that we will dance at 96, go home and quietly die comfortably in our sleep, we can make decisions in our life and our death. We can think about and discuss what we are and are not willing to endure when we inevitably become too frail to enjoy life as we know ourselves to be. This includes contemplation and some frank discussions with those who may be the executors of decisions on our behalf. It is not enough to simply say “I don’t want to be in a nursing home.” It is imperative that we make known what we individually consider quality of life to look like for ourselves and consider what options available best achieve those goals.
Would you trade a being gravely ill for 3 months of chemotherapy in order to live 4 months more? If you have a heart attack or a stroke, what measures do you want to help sustain you? For those of you who are younger, what if you were in an accident? Would you be willing to stay in a coma indefinitely? How damaged of a body are you willing to live in? There are no rights or wrongs. Stephen Hawking has lived so many years in a body unable to move or even speak and has continued to make enormous contributions to the world. These are personal decisions for you to make. Don’t let someone else determine what you should or should not endure, be it family, children, and least of all institutions that do not know or understand your individual needs.