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Image by NEOM on Unsplash.

“Getting older” usually refers to people 50-75. We rarely hear about people who make it to their 80th birthday and beyond.

A friend asked me, “If you’re in good health at age 81 or 82, why not keep going?” 

Well yes…except that life after 80 becomes a crapshoot. You might be as healthy as you were in your sixties and seventies. Or at any moment you could lose what you have. 

Most doctors push for continued health after age 80. Have a heart attack over 75? Stay alive. Have cancer in your early 80s? Chances are you’ll survive a few rounds of chemo.

What nobody talks about is the uncertainty of getting older. Sure, you could survive a heart attack or cancer. But you’re in a holding pattern for something worse.

A physician tells me, “I saw that with my own parents. After they turned 80, everything went downhill. Eventually, I had to put them into a nursing home.”

A Medium author writes about her mother:
“Gone was the energetic, compulsive, talkative woman who raised me, and who maintained both her energy and her ability to worry into her early 80s.” 

There’s also the best-selling book, Happiness Is A Choice.  Leland conducted in-depth interviews with six people over 80, over the course of a year. Throughout the book, he insists that these people have made the “choice” to be happy, despite their increasingly dire circumstances.

For example, (p. 29) Fred describes happiness as “a view from old age — taking satisfaction in what was available right now, not hitching it to the future.” How is that different from adapting to live in a maximum security prison … when you’re serving a sentence for something you didn’t do?

I haven’t seen much about the transition to one’s eighties..or another age that’s the beginning of The End   

Esty’s book Eightysomethings might be a guide. She’s a psychotherapist who interviewed a lot of people in this age range. But her book has the same limitations as other books featuring interviews.

There’s a huge diversity among people as they age. As they grow older, they become more diverse–not less. So if she interviewed another 100 people, she’d have 100 different views. There’s no attempt to classify or organize the findings. There are just 100 people, presented casually as they go.

A second problem with Esty’s book is the emphasis on family. Most chapters end with tips in general and tips for families who take care of people over 80. In fact, it’s very hard to find examples of people living alone, with minimal help or no help at all. Most people seem to depend on family members for the basics, while more and more people are finding themselves alone as they age. 

At the end of Esty’s book is a list of activities for people over 80. This list is not realistic. For example, one option was “teach a course.” But who will hire someone over 80 to teach anything? Other options assume physical or monetary means,

Mary Pipher describes the experience of getting older. She’s writing about much younger people. Quoting Atul Gawande in Being Mortal she says “Doctors are not trained to help their patients make good decisions about their fatal diseases.” 

And while Pipher accurately recognizes the problem, she recognizes the severe limits on help. For instance, her brother retires from being a doctor. Now, he says, “You can’t go out and buy a pound of purpose.” In my book on aging, I wrote: If I ran the world, you’d get a pill so you could end things when they got too hard, sometime after you turn 80. 

The only guidance I’ve seen comes from Ezekiel Emanuel’s article: “I want to die at 75.” He won’t take deliberate steps to end his life, he says, but he won’t try to extend his life either. No chemo. No surgery. Just going on.

Of course lots of people want to keep going as long as they can, and they should. Many people won’t face this dilemma till they’re in their 90s. Pipher writes about people facing this problem in their sixties and early seventies.

But it’s important to realize, eighty isn’t just another signpost on the road. It’s the most treacherous and risky part of what you do.

Unfortunately you now make a choice early on, so you avoid coming to that fork in the road. Most of us don’t want to be like the grandmother Olga Kotelko talked about. At 102 she answers the question, “What does it feel like to be 100?” with “I hope you never find out.”

The woman’s mind was “sharp as Cheddar,” but she was “essentially body-locked…like a transcendently beautiful butterfly pinned to a board. She died — was released, really — just shy of 102.

It’s why I recommend a cyanide pill in my book, along with  (I’m only half-joking) a gift certificate to a Mafia hitman.  You hope to live forever, but you know you won’t. You’d like some control over the outcome, either way.