When is a good age to die?

Back when I was in the sixth grade, I thought that 60 would be a good time to die. What’s the point, I reasoned, of living to be so old?

This year I turned 60. I long ago realized that sixth-graders aren’t that bright on matters of longevity.

I thought of this last week while watching Ezekiel Emanuel declare that he hopes to die at 75, expanding on an essay he had earlier written in The Atlantic.

By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives.

I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations. Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy. Indeed, I plan to have my memorial service before I die.

And I don’t want any crying or wailing, but a warm gathering filled with fun reminiscences, stories of my awkwardness, and celebrations of a good life. After I die, my survivors can have their own memorial service if they want — that is not my business.

Let me be clear about my wish. I’m neither asking for more time than is likely nor foreshortening my life. Today I am, as far as my physician and I know, very healthy, with no chronic illness.

I just climbed Kilimanjaro with two of my nephews. So I am not talking about bargaining with God to live to 75 because I have a terminal illness. Nor am I talking about waking up one morning 18 years from now and ending my life through euthanasia or suicide. Since the 1990s, I have actively opposed legalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

People who want to die in one of these ways tend to suffer not from unremitting pain but from depression, hopelessness, and fear of losing their dignity and control. The people they leave behind inevitably feel they have somehow failed. The answer to these symptoms is not ending a life but getting help.

I have long argued that we should focus on giving all terminally ill people a good, compassionate death—not euthanasia or assisted suicide for a tiny minority.

Emanuel is no sixth-grader; he’s 57, or — as we 60-year-olds would say: “he’s just a kid.”

In the Boston Globe today, columnist Jeff Jacoby takes Emanuel to task.

Maybe Emanuel is merely being provocative. He acknowledges that 75 is an arbitrary age to designate as the boundary between a vibrant life and a feeble one. He admits there are “myriad people I know who are over 75 and doing quite well.” At the start of his essay, he claims “I am sure of my position” — yet reserves the right, at the very end, to change his mind once he reaches his 75th birthday.

Emanuel is 57 now, which gives him 18 years to reconsider his death wish, and to learn, perhaps, that the declines of advanced age can be a blessing as well as a curse. To be able to accept the pains and impediments of mortality requires a measure of courage and dignity that few of us are blessed with — or can even imagine — in our prime.

Emanuel’s own father, now 87, has slowed down considerably. His career is over. His son describes him as “sluggish,” and seems confounded that the old man describes himself as happy.

Emanuel may dread the prospect of ending up like his father. But he’s still young, and not yet wise.

  • jon

    My grandfather has specified what bakery he wants the cake for his 100th birthday from.

    He still has a little over a decade to go, but from how he looks and acts right now I see only one barrier on his trek to his 100th… His friends, they are either dying or giving up.

    It’s from what I’ve observed it’s easier to be active when there are other people along with you for the ride… I’ve watched my grandmother (other side of the family) and

    I guess the lesson here, is make some friends with people younger than you.

  • Rich in Duluth

    I think Emanuel’s declaration is premature. I’m in my late 60’s and see a lot of interesting things to do and learn, ahead. He’s definitely speaking before he is wise on this subject.

  • Peter @ MSP

    I find it interesting to see this post immediately follow a story about someone who died suddenly over the weekend. Rarely would we humans get to choose such a thing, and when we do, the circumstances are typically less than ideal.

    “When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.” -Tecumseh

    Many of us don’t get the opportunity to take even 57 trips around the sun. I suppose I’ll cut him some slack though, he’s a baby boomer.

  • Jim G

    Seven police cars, a fire truck, and ambulance converged on our cul-de-sac last Friday evening. Neighbors noticing the flashing lights came out of their houses. One yelled, “Can you tell me what’s happening?” No response. You wonder in those moments, is it the kids? I hope it’s not the kids. Domestic violence? No can’t be, but you never know for sure. Policemen came and went. The ambulance left… empty. Finally a group of us got the attention of a policeman. It was a “medical” on the wife’s step-father who lived with them. She was out with her girl-friends and they couldn’t get ahold of her. I saw him all the time as he drove past on his daily errands. Seventies, maybe close to 75… so quick… so gone.

  • Andy

    Having read Emanuel’s article just last week, I can tell you that the short synopsis you’ve read here does not capture the entire process of his think nor any of the reasons why. He also doesn’t actually say he wants to die the moment he turns 75, despite of what Jacoby writes. I’ll let you read the article to come to your own conclusions, but I found it an interesting read.

    (The title is definitely attention grabbing, but I wonder whether Emanuel even wrote his own title.)

  • John Peschken

    I’m 61, and as I look towards retirement I feel my mind turning away from career concerns, watching my children start families, seeing grandchildren being born. I am looking forward to spending more time volunteering for the organizations I care about. It’s a time to contemplate where I’ve been and what’s left and I’m excited to get there.
    I think Ezekiel makes a mistake when he hangs a number on it. I will be done when I can no longer do much good. When I can no longer be useful to my family and the organizations I care about, and when I can’t find a way to have fun, then I’ll be done.

  • Maura

    I just read Emanuel’s whole piece in the Atlantic. Fascinating. Whether you agree with his premise or not, it’s kind of a gift that someone inspires a discussion of our own mortality. I like the idea that there are options, and someone can choose solely palliative care after a certain age.