I have been thinking about the fact that we in the West are living longer and the impact it is having on the way we are dying. A few years ago I worked with a woman roughly my age (late 30s) named Leslie whose mother developed dementia and started doing scary things like leaving the stove on. Leslie was based in our Pennsylvania office, but her mother lived in Manhattan. As an only child, Leslie felt it necessary to give up her house in PA, which she loved, and move back to Manhattan. Her mom passed away a couple of years later. Leslie’s mother’s dying led Leslie to reevaluate her own life. She gave up her hectic corporate job to pursue a role as a director of volunteers for a local zoo and to ramp up her yoga-teaching practice.
I asked my friend, the author and futurist, Kingsley L. Dennis, for his thoughts on the impact of longevity. He began by quoting the 18th Century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who quipped that most people are subject to lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Said Kingsley, “Back then, death was a relief from a hard life and often arrived at with a sudden drop of the body from over-work, from the body being tired, or rampant disease. Death in such times was not considered much, and interfered with little.”
Kingsley believes that things like the 40-hour work-week and the period of post-work retirement which so many people enjoy have made it possible for us to be more deliberate about our deaths. He says, “The concept of death and dying is now more aligned with both conscious awareness and choice. It is a concept we can face, consider, question, and choose how to approach – or even deal with!”
Kingsley also noted that, “Most people today view death not as a release but as an interference.”
Another friend, the author and mystic, Lars Muhl, told me the story of his father’s passing. It involves a common element of the contemporary dying process, which some people are starting to question – the use of morphine during the last stages of life. Lars said that soon after his father’s death he was driving past his dad’s house when all of a sudden his father’s spirit came into the car and sat in the passenger seat next to him. His father was at pains to mention that the morphine given to him in his final hours had confused him and interfered with his ability to transition smoothly.
Maneesha James points out another downside of longevity. She wrote to say, “Longevity is so what many people aspire to (especially Americans, it seems!). But what exactly are we wishing on ourselves in questing after a longer life?
“Take my mother: although she is recently showing early signs of dementia, at 96 she is otherwise doing well. Still plays Bridge three times a week and went to Bali by ship a month or so ago! However, the not-so-enviable aspect of her being in good health is that she is lonely, having outlived most of her old friends – people with whom she shared a whole bunch of memories. Formerly a very active, extrovert person, because she is not as mobile as she was, she feels house-bound and bored.
“And of course our living longer will also affect communities at large and the global economy. Ian Stuart-Hamilton explains that ‘If the proportion of older adults increases, then by definition the proportion of younger adults decreases. This means that a smaller fraction of the population is working and hence paying direct taxation [which] forms the backbone of funding for welfare support schemes such as state pensions and national health care.… A “grey shift” will create an increase in demand for services which are principally funded by a workforce diminishing in size…. This is an instance of the demographic time bomb – the major and potentially catastrophic financial burden on the economics of the coming decades created by a greying population’. (The Psychology of Ageing’ pp. 16-17)
“When you add in the resistance of most governments to people voluntarily ending their lives – to my mind it all adds up to a pretty grim picture.”
We would love to start a conversation about how longevity is affecting your life and the impact it is having on your approach to conscious living and dying. Please leave your comments below.