As we grow older (and by “we,” I mean “I”), one’s thoughts tend naturally to turn to mortality. The comparison of your age to that of those listed in the paper’s obituaries becomes a depressing habit, one gives up beloved foods and behaviors in an effort to stay alive as long as possible, and you realize that the time that has passed since you were 40 is longer than the time you have left.
So it’s somewhat heartening, then—though I can’t get there myself—to hear about older people who are sane but have just decided to either die or not engage in the usual measures to prevent getting ill. And two people have done it in different ways.
As this NYT article notes, Australian ecologist and botanist David Goodall, 104, who was working and active right until recently, grew upset at his worsening health and loss of independence, and just decided that it wasn’t worth it to live any more. Unable to kill himself in Australia (he tried but failed, and there are no laws in Australia allowing assisted suicide), he took off for Switzerland and, with the help of the group Dignitas, turned on a machine that injected barbiturates into his veins. (Another option is to drink a barbiturate containing solution). He died on May 10.
I suppose if I were that debilitated, I might just be weary of life. What keeps me going are things to look forward to, and if those are gone there’s no point in living. (I’m not nearly there yet!) At any rate, I admire Goodall for his tenacity and, especially, his complete lack of a fear of death. One quote from the Times piece:
Asked if there was anything he still wanted to do, he said: “There are many things I would like to do, of course, but it’s too late. I’m content to leave them undone.”
Pressed about what he would miss, he allowed, “I have been missing for a long time my journeys into the Australian countryside, but I haven’t been able to do that for quite a while”
He was asked about his last meal. “I’m rather limited in my culinary enjoyment nowadays,” he responded. “I don’t find that I can enjoy my meals as I used to.”
On Thursday, he received a fatal dose of a barbiturate intravenously. In order to comply with Swiss law that bans the interference of third parties in the process, he opened the valve to release the solution himself and fell asleep, dying soon after. Some of his grandchildren were with him in his final hours, Exit International said.
He wanted no funeral and no remembrance service, and he asked that his body be donated to medicine or his ashes sprinkled locally, according to Exit. Mr. Goodall did not believe in the afterlife, the organization said.
How would he like to be remembered? “As an instrument of freeing the elderly from the need to pursue their life irrespective,” he said at the news conference on Wednesday.
At one point, he was asked what tune he would choose for his last song, and he said the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Then he began to sing, with verve and vigor.
According to Mr. Nitschke, Mr. Goodall did end up choosing Beethoven, and he died the moment “Ode to Joy” concluded.
My “going out” music would be Richard Strauss’s appropriate song “Beim Schlafengehen” (“At the time of going to sleep”), with Jessye Norman’s incomparable rendition (here). Readers are invited to submit what kind of music they’d like to hear when they were dying.
Second, well known author Barbara Ehrenreich, who is 76, wrote a provocative essay that’s gotten some attention. She’s decided to give up all preventive medical care and not worry about her diet and exercise so much because she’s “old enough to die”, and sees no point in prolonging a long life with expensive medical care, or even preventive tests. It’s an essay worth pondering, and I agree with some of it. Have a read by clicking on the screenshot:
A few quotes:
“In the last few years I have given up on the many medical measures—cancer screenings, annual exams, Pap smears, for example—expected of a responsible person with health insurance. This was not based on any suicidal impulse. It was barely even a decision, more like an accumulation of micro-decisions: to stay at my desk and meet a deadline or show up at the primary care office and submit to the latest test to gauge my biological sustainability; to spend the afternoon in faux-cozy corporate environment of a medical facility or to go for a walk.
. . . I also understood that I was going against the grain for my particular demographic. Most of my educated, middle-class friends had begun to double down on their health-related efforts at the onset of middle age, if not earlier. They undertook exercise or yoga regimens; they filled their calendars with upcoming medical tests and exams; they boasted about their “good” and “bad” cholesterol counts, their heart rates and blood pressure. Mostly they understood the task of aging to be self-denial, especially in the realm of diet, where one medical fad, one study or another, condemned fat and meat, carbs, gluten, dairy, or all animal-derived products. In the health-conscious mind-set that has prevailed among the world’s affluent people for about four decades now, health is indistinguishable from virtue, tasty foods are “sinfully delicious,” while healthful foods may taste good enough to be advertised as “guilt-free.” Those seeking to compensate for a lapse undertake punitive measures like fasts, purges, or diets composed of different juices carefully sequenced throughout the day.
. . . Once I realized I was old enough to die, I decided that I was also old enough not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life. I eat well, meaning I choose foods that taste good and that will stave off hunger for as long as possible, like protein, fiber, and fats. I exercise—not because it will make me live longer but because it feels good when I do. As for medical care: I will seek help for an urgent problem, but I am no longer interested in looking for problems that remain undetectable to me. Ideally, the determination of when one is old enough to die should be a personal decision, based on a judgment of the likely benefits, if any, of medical care and—just as important at a certain age—how we choose to spend the time that remains to us.
. . . In giving up on preventive care, I’m just taking this line of thinking a step further: Not only do I reject the torment of a medicalized death, but I refuse to accept a medicalized life, and my determination only deepens with age. As the time that remains to me shrinks, each month and day becomes too precious to spend in windowless waiting rooms and under the cold scrutiny of machines. Being old enough to die is an achievement, not a defeat, and the freedom it brings is worth celebrating.
Well, I don’t fully agree with her; if you’re in good health, and still look forward to life, why not at least have routine tests for things that are easily treated, like high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
But I can understand the abstemiousness that itself makes life less valuable. I well remember that when I was younger, and could eat anything I wanted, in any amount, without putting on weight, I said, “If I ever had to restrict my diet, I’d kill myself.” Well, here I am fasting twice a week, and with my love of food, it’s no picnic. Yet I’m not contemplating suicide! A “low carb diet”, which I tried, was worse: no bread, pasta, and, especially, no wine or beer. Is living worth living if that’s what you can’t eat or drink? I gave that up for fasting, but now two days a week I don’t get any food save a latte with Splenda. And if I really wanted to live a long time, I’d go on one of those diets where you just eat vegetables and fruits, or simply cut down my food intake, like a rat, to near starvation.
But is that a life worth living? Not for me. In my head I sometimes hear the words of U. S. Marine Sergeant Major Daniel Daly (twice a Medal of Honor winner), who was supposed to have spurred on his men at the Battle of Belleau Wood by saying:
“For Christ’s sake men—come on! Do you want to live forever?”