When a Long Life Is Too Much to Bear

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Living a long life seems the obvious goal for most people, and many of them, like Dylan Thomas, raged against the dying of the light. Others—like the transhumanists that Olga featured recently—want to transcend death entirely.

But the vast majority of the readers who responded to our note asking “Is a Long Life Really Worth It?” answered “nope, not really.” Genie is in the “maybe” camp:

Well, like most things, the answer is not a simple yes or no; it depends—on so many factors, some of which we can control (e.g. not smoking) and can’t control (e.g. our genetic make-up). If you’re in good health physically and have all your faculties and some purposeful work or hobby, or just something you really enjoyed doing, then maybe it might be a good idea to live a long life. But those are a lot of ifs.

Another reader, John, looks to human connections:

Health is essential to making survival good, but it also helps to have a caring partner, for companionship and support. I am biased, because at 81, I have my health and a good wife. I’d like to live past 100 if these conditions remain. But if I become disabled, chronically ill or alone, life is unlikely worth it.

Rita has a bleaker outlook:

Looking at my genetics, I’m starting to think I may live a long time. I’m not yet 70, but I can probably expect to go until 95 at least.

This doesn’t fill me with joy. Who’s going to look after me when my eyesight starts to crap out and I get weaker? Where’s the money going to come from to continue to pay my bills? These are not minor questions. Their answers, as far as I can see, are “nobody” and “nowhere.”

And anyway, it’s not as if I can look forward to hiking in the desert or exploring foreign cities in my extreme old age. Nor will many of us be directing films or conducting research in our nineties. What most of us can anticipate is day after day staring at a TV set, wondering if anyone is coming for a visit.

She adds, “That Atlantic excerpt you cited from 1928 nails it”—namely, “Any programme which has for its object the prolongation of life must also have, accompanying this increased span of life, the ability of the individual to engage actively and with some degree of effectiveness in the affairs of life.” Another reader, Bernyce, is also worried about infirmity:

After the age of 75, the human body declines—if not steadily, then in jerks and/or slopes. People begin to loose hearing, eyesight, and useful teeth, as well as the ability to digest food that may be ingested. A younger friend (74), living in an assisted-living facility because her son lives 200 miles away and she is no longer able to walk, says her companions say the food is delicious. She says the desserts are tasteful but everything else is flavorless and slippery. People who have loved ones to care for them may be more fortunate.

Watch the French film Amour. It is a short, beautiful, and painful glimpse of the end of life in a loving marriage. Even when we are not alone, the end of life is very difficult.

Here’s the haunting trailer for Amour:

Here’s Jim:

At the somewhat advanced age of 88 (and I’ll be 89 in a few days), I’m tired. I think I’ve accomplished all I’m capable of and am ready to rest … permanently, I guess. Curious to see what, if anything, comes next. I’ll let you know.

Jim’s “I’m tired” reminds me of a similar sigh of acceptance that came from William Buckley during one of his final interviews, before dying at the age of 82:

The clip is worth watching in full, even if you’re no fan of the conservative figure, but it begins with Charlie Rose asking Buckley if he wishes he were 20 again, and he replies:

No, absolutely not. If I had a pill that would reduce my age by 25 years I wouldn’t take it. Because I’m tired of life. I really am. I am utterly prepared to stop living on. There are no enticements to me that justify the weariness, the repetition ...

Buckley goes on to quote Sherwin Nuland—a surgeon, professor of bioethics, and author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter—who once said, “The greatest enemy of older people is young doctors,” because they’re determined to keep you alive at any cost. This next reader would likely fight them off:

I keep near at hand a copy of “Why I Hope To Die At 75” by Ezekiel J. Emanuel, published in the October 2014 issue of The Atlantic. I will turn 74 this year.

Maude waited until her 80th birthday:

Kerrie looks to a much younger age:

I am ready to go at 61. We have no problem helping our sick and injured pets, farm animals, etc. find final peace, and now people are beginning to evolve on this point too. Thank god. (Yes, I think god would agree.)

Let’s face it, after 60, folks begin kicking the ol’ bucket from normal end of life reasons. Seems the body remembers “hard” living in the early years. And this is okay. I’m reading The Razor’s Edge right now and that helps me understand.

Here’s Bill:

As an 85 year old, I recognize that my usefulness is coming to a close.
At this time, I seem to provide joy to my children and grandchildren.
When I become a liability and need the constant care of others, I am content to have my life end, even if I have to take care of that myself.
At this time I do not need nor want that kind of care. But it may come soon, and I can face that comfortably.

John quips, “At 74, I have recently said to my adult children, ‘You know, this getting old is getting old.’” Sharon is a very longtime reader:

Dear Atlantic, magazine of my youth and age;

I believe that one’s life should be as long as one can make a contribution in some way. For me, personally, I wish to live only as long as I can be useful. At 72, and a few years before, I made the decision that when I felt I could no longer contribute in a tangible way, I will end my life.

I was greatly miffed by an article by a know-all person of the psychiatric persuasion, who said that anyone who wished to end his or her life was depressed. In my opinion, that’s balderdash. My firm belief is that we should live only as long as we can help to decrease our particular footprint on the planet by benefitting others. My desire is to have 15 years of retirement, but if I can't meet my personal hook, I’ll discard that goal.

I think it is immoral to artificially prolong the physical existence of an individual who is in no more than a vegetative state. On the other hand, I believe that no one has the right to make that choice for another person.

Kent has some advice:

I think everyone should think about a long life, and when you’re about halfway there or within 30 years of being there, set yourself a goal of how old and how alert you want to be. It’s likely to affect your health and wealth by making you focus on more important things in life and your ability to experience them. The earth doesn’t owe anyone longevity so it’s up to you to figure out what and where and when you’ll take charge of your existence and final stages of life.

Kent’s note reminds me of my stepfather, who’s approaching 70 and has a really wise approach to the remainder of his life: Instead of focusing on how long he’s going to live, he’s focused on how short he can make the window of time he’ll be infirmed. By eating healthy, cycling dozens of miles per week, and generally keeping his stress low, he’s determined to shrink that final period as much as possible.

This next reader, Rachel, also looks to her parents:

I am compelled to write to you! That has never happened before.

In the last six years, I saw both my parents off this planet. Both were happy to go and did not overstay. My mother, always in good health, had hoped for some more years but fell ill. Once that happened, she did not want to linger. It was too physically painful.

My father simply grew lonely and disinterested, and he too welcomed the end. He actually asked me hasten it for him, but I reminded him it was against the law (!)

Now I have my parents-in-law. He is a priest whose life revolved around being connected to others and doing pastoral work but who has recoiled into himself these last five years and today makes no contribution to anyone, anything, anywhere. This is so wrong. He could bring meaning to people but has closed those doors.

My mother-in-law, who has had to put him into a home because she cannot care for him, spends her days wracked with guilt for having done so. While he abhors the thought of death (I thought he would want to go to his maker??), she welcomes it—to be relieved of her guilt.

But neither is dying soon. What kind of life is this for them and their families, everybody’s pocketbook, and the earth’s resources?

I am soon 58 and HAVE NO DESIRE to live long. My parents checked out at 87 and 89 and I would be happy to go sooner, while I am still making some contribution to the world and to my loved ones.

Emma contributes through teaching:

Life that includes giving, sharing, and caring for others is worth it. In contrast, life as a “parasite”—endlessly entertained by television and card games—is perhaps a more arrogant use of resources. Of course I can say this now, at age 75, the day I teach a Chinese emigre English, the day after I teach three little girls piano, and the day when I will soon perform music for fellow residents in our retirement community.

What will I say ten years from now, when all I hope for is to see my grandchildren safely through adolescence, and I have no energy to spare for what I do now, I do not know.

Lastly, a reader in Tupelo, Mississippi, confronts a reader cited in our Daily newsletter:

“If we are being quite frank, there are a few exceptional people who may have something special to give to humanity, but the vast majority of people are simply useless.”

Are the majority of people useless? If we only consider people who have made contributions to the world through their inventions, philosophies, scientific or medical research, political leadership, military or business achievements, etc., then I would agree that the vast majority of people would seem to be useless.

However, every person who has ever lived on the face of the earth has influenced or impacted the lives of those around them in ways we know nothing about, unless their life touched us personally. And then only I can know how they impacted my own life experience.

Some of the peoples’ influences were/are positive and constructive; some negative and destructive. But they all contribute to the evolutionary process of the human consciousness and therefore each person’s experience, which in turn influences the lives of people of succeeding cultures and generations.

The greater question to me is why we are here at all.  What is the reason or need for our actual existence? But this gets into a philosophical discussion that could go on and on.