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Image by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash.

“Getting older is inevitable (and certainly better than the alternative).”

That’s a statement you’ll find in the New York Times section A Guide to Aging Well. It appears in the section below each article on aging when you scroll down the page.

I wince every time I see it.

For one thing, I trust very few generalizations and almost no all-or-nothing statements. Once you get past, “The sun rises in the east” and “everybody dies,” very few statements apply across the board.

“Getting older is inevitable.” 

True: Each year your age goes up by one. If you were 42 last year you’ll be 42 this year.

But physical and mental signs of age vary enormously from one person to another. There’s a saying among geriatricians: “If you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.”

“Certainly better than the alternative.”

Not true at all! 

Many people – perhaps the majority – would prefer to get older rather than die. Not everyone feels this way. 

Many, many people would strongly prefer “the alternative” to dementia or living in constant pain. Some would prefer “the alternative” to life in a nursing home, where there’s a 25-40% abuse rate.

A WHO report suggests 2/3 of staff “reporting that they have committed abuse in the past year.”

Even if you get care in a supportive home setting, what kind of life can you have if you’re confined to a bed with zero independence?

A wish to die usually gets associated with depression. A rare exception comes in Susan Jacoby’s book, Never Say Die. Jacoby describes a man who’d always lived alone. Now forced to live with a caretaker, he rebelled. He stole the caretaker’s car keys drove to a bridge and jumped.

He shouldn’t have had to jump, Jacoby says. He should have been allowed die peacefully. 

 Patrick Henry famously said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” No one said he needed therapy.

During WWII spies were offered cyanide pills when threatened with capture and torture. Madeline Albright gives a vivid example in her book, Prague Winter. Those who chose cyanide weren’t considered mentally ill; they were heroes. Why isn’t it equally rational to take a final exit when faced with torture in a nursing home…or even when you lose your desired quality of life?

That’s a point I discuss extensively in a whole chapter in my book. I was afraid people would be turned off by the message but that didn’t happen. Younger people say, “My mom says that all the time.” And older people say, “I’m with you. Whee’s my pill?”