A doctor noted for his role as a key architect of President Obama’s healthcare reform reminded us just how narrow the lens of the medical model is when it comes to aging. In an article posted this morning in the International Business Times, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel stated that living past 75 is highly overrated, because living too long is “a loss.” Emanuel digs an even deeper hole by saying:
It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.
Wow. The only thing I find “feeble” and “pathetic” are Dr. Emanuel’s profoundly ageist remarks. What’s even more disturbing is knowing, all too well, the punch delivered by the word of a renowned doctor. I shudder, when I think of the impact these words might have on the efforts of change agents who are committed to painting a different image of older life; or worse, the Elder who is already prejudiced against herself and the possibility that she has something uniquely meaningful to offer.
After catching this piece while scrolling through Google News, I sought out Dr. Emanuel’s original article in The Atlantic. Here Dr. Emanuel drivels on for pages, making his case with charts and graphs based on declinist arguments for why there’s no point in existing past 75. He goes on to illustrate the financial burden we create as we age and manages to drop-kick any source of meaning or purpose in one’s life that falls short of mainstream displays of ambition:
We don’t notice that we are aspiring to and doing less and less. And so we remain content, but the canvas is now tiny. The American immortal, once a vital figure in his or her profession and community, is happy to cultivate avocational interests, to take up bird watching, bicycle riding, pottery, and the like. And then, as walking becomes harder and the pain of arthritis limits the fingers’ mobility, life comes to center around sitting in the den reading or listening to books on tape and doing crossword puzzles.
Who are you, Dr. Emanuel, to belittle what feeds the soul of another human being at any phase of life? Whether I choose to simply read, do pottery, or pole dance after 75 is not for you to measure, assess, or assign value to. While you may bow at the altar of all things DOING, I am inspired and humbled at the feet of an Elder who knows how and when to simply BE. While you ramble on about the waste that is Alzheimer’s disease and note that we “lose our creativity” past a certain age, I’ll say that some of the most transcendent moments in my life have occurred in the presence of a frail elder living with dementia. These experiences, all powerfully “creative,” transformed me as a human being and urged me to grow in ways I never thought possible. Had my life not been touched by these Elders – all well past the age of 75 — I would not be who I am today.
Maybe you are on to something, Dr. Emanuel… the loss of hope that arises when we just can’t think outside the box. If my thinking was as limited as yours, I, too, might say, “Why bother?”