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ageism, ezekiel emanuel, and aging with time

Image by Jonathan Petersson on Unsplash.

There’s only one time when calendar age is relevant to decision-making. At a certain point, you’re a short-timer. You can see your journey’s end getting closer. The odds are against you. In 5 to 10 years you’ll probably be dead (or you’ll be so miserable you’ll wish you were).

Ezekiel Emanuel, a distinguished oncologist working in bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, captured this challenge in his notorious essay: Why I Want To Die At 75

He made it clear: He didn’t want euthanasia. He wouldn’t take active steps to die. But he’d stop taking steps to delay or prevent death. He’d stop medical screening tests. He’d refuse chemotherapy or cancer and major surgery.

Life after 75 would be challenging enough without the added burden of a chronic illness, he reasoned. Besides, that’s a decent lifespan. No one should feel cut off.

It’s not age: it’s the probability of enjoying a payback for your efforts.

Let’s say you start a career-based master’s degree program – anything from counseling to law to business to organizational psych to … you name it. Or you sign up for a certificate in software development.

Or you want to learn a language well enough to read novels and travel in another country.

And let’s say you’re 77. By the time you finish your program and complete the related requirements, you’ll be close to 80.

A well-meaning friend says, “You’ll be 80 anyway.”

That’s cruel.

Many of us know healthy people whose physical health plummeted somewhere between the ages of 75 and 85…usually late 70s to early 80s. There’s a higher probability of picking up a chronic disease or a condition that makes life unbearable, such as falls that put an end to independent living.

Even worse, the world stops paying attention somewhere between 50 and 65. By the time you’re 75, they’ll assume you’re retired. It will be nearly impossible to land a paying job that uses what you’ve learned, unless you have an “in” with an organization.

So suppose you reach 80 (or 65, 75, 85…whatever). You’ve completed your degree. You took steps to build a business. You spent the past 3 years studying music or Italian.

And now you realize you rolled the dice and lost. You aren’t taken seriously in your new career. Or you’re physically unable to continue along the path to reach your goal.

How will you feel about the time you spent? Could you have used the time differently?

The same dilemma applies when a 60-something or 70-something gets advised to enter a long course of unpleasant treatment, most notably chemotherapy. You have to ask, “Will I still be able to enjoy the outcome?”

In this case, you’re rolling a lot of dice. Will the treatment cure you or do further harm? Will you pick up another condition along the way so you now have the misery of the treatment but no way to enjoy the outcome? Will you be in a new and better place, able to enjoy a higher quality of life for a longer time?

“I wish I hadn’t spent so much time working towards a degree I can’t use…or learning a language when I’m no longer able to travel…or building a business that’s taking off when I’m about to say good-by to the world…or doing chemo when I don’t have time to enjoy the benefits.”

Or will you think:

“I’ve enjoyed taking the courses, studying the language, or building the business. I won’t achieve my goal but I’ve enjoyed the ride.  I want to believe I’ve done everything possible for my life and my health.”

The difference is about values. Nobody can tell you what to choose. Statistically, you’re likely to experience negative outcomes at some point after age 80. If you’re in excellent mental and physical health, you’ll deal with stereotypes.

You can choose to ignore the statistics.

You can. reframe your decision and decide not to think about rolling the dice.

Olga Kotelko started training for track and field when she was 77. She went on to enter international competitions and remained active till she died in her early 90s. We’ll never know her thoughts as she began the process. She clearly didn’t get deterred by identifying as a short-timer.

One thing’s sure. The patronizing advice to forge ahead because “you’ll be 80 anyway” should be disregarded.