Just Thinking About Death And Stuff

You’re going to have to bear with the stupid title and image. I’m trying to make light of something that genuinely concerns me and don’t actually think it’s trivial. Humour as a defence mechanism and all that.

“Life Expectancy Rises Grinding To A Halt”

Most people will have read this headline, maybe taken an interest and moved on with their life. Instead, I have apparently decided to have yet another existential crisis. Enjoy:

Sir Michael Mormot, an academic and former government adviser, has commented on how the rise in life expectancy in the UK has stagnated. There has been a rapid increase in how long people are living over the past hundred years, but the numbers are suggesting this has petered out as of 2010. In 2015, which is the most recent study from the Office for National Statistics, men were expected to live to 79.6 years, and for women it is 83.1 years.

Some people have said that Mormot is blaming David Cameron’s austerity measures which made cuts in the public sector, like in the NHS and healthcare. Actually, when you look into his comments, he is saying that the cuts led to insufficient funds and care for the elderly. It was a link between the quality of life and length of life that Mormot was drawing on.

Upon reading about how the rise in life expectancy is slowing down, my initial thoughts weren’t so much “why is this happening?”, but “why is this a problem?”

Despite finishing Atul Gawande’s ‘Being Mortal’ over a week ago, I can’t stop thinking about it. Themes of mortality, the elderly and medicine keep coming up in the news and my conversations with other people. One of the points that really stuck with me from the book is that medicine doesn’t seem to know when to stop. When should we stop interfering with our bodies and just leave them to their natural processes, even if that results in death?

Gawande can’t answer these questions, so I certainly can’t. As a 20-year-old, age isn’t really a huge worry for me yet and I have no authority on the subject. Right now, I have no idea what it’s like for your body to fail you because it’s getting older. That’s not a brag, but an admission that I know nothing of how that feels.

However, I can imagine what it’s like when my body shuts down bit by bit. Little things like wrinkles and reduced energy with turn into bigger issues with my organs. The organ I’m most worried about? My brain.

I’ve seen people I love lose their memory over time. Alzheimer’s is almost an expected diagnosis amongst the elderly. I am so scared that I will be confused or lost, unable to recognise the people I loved. Intelligence is another thing I value highly; I am constantly trying to build my knowledge and the process of accumulating information is actually quite enjoyable for me. Academia is kind of ingrained in my sense of self (I hate myself too for saying that but I can’t figure out how to re-word it). If I grow old enough to start losing my memory, am I losing my identity? Another question that even the professionals can’t answer.

I’ve also seen people I love lose their reason to live, sinking into depression. They don’t want to live anymore – and in all fairness, I can understand. After the world has been yours to conquer, when you had few physical or imaginative limits, how is it possible to be content with one room in a nursing home or hospital? Daytime TV, 12pm lunches in the dining room, and the occasional visit from family… To end up there, after everything else you’ve experience? It’s an existence, not a life.

Why would we want to prolong that? Our care systems for the elderly are doing the best they can with limited resources but I’ll be honest, the idea of ever having to live in one terrifies me. I cannot bear the prospect of spending years in the same four walls with nothing to fill my hours. It’s not the way I want to end a life that I hope will be incredible.

Let’s get back to Mormot, and away from my brief existential crisis (that is not the depth I was planning on in this post but hey, let’s roll with it). His statement that he is “deeply concerned” is interesting. Maybe his worry is not that life expectancy isn’t rising, but the fact that it has stopped so abruptly. Why is this happening?

If this is the natural boundary for human life, then there is very little we can do about it. On the other hand, does this show that the government – and the country overall – have stopped caring about the older members of society? Their care and their needs aren’t even being met, so we can be pretty sure that their emotional and mental wellbeing isn’t either.

Where do we go from here? ‘Being Mortal’ is a 300 page book and it still doesn’t reach a definite conclusion. I’m not going to even try to answer it in a blog post.

If nothing else, read Atul Gawande’s book. Evidently, it’s a thought-provoking text. Until the government can decide on how to rectify the many complex issues within the care home system, I’ve started trying to work out how I can help. There are loads of charity schemes to try to pair up elderly people with other members of the community. I guess that, instead of just sitting around and waiting for the problem to be sorted, we can make differences to individual lives.

This isn’t a preachy piece, although it may sound it. It’s something that I thought would make more sense as I tried to write it but I think I’ve complicated it more for myself. Entirely counter-productive and now my brain needs a break. Love Island anyone?

Best wishes,

Siobhan


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