Living long: but how long is long enough?

Do I really want to live very long? And how long is long enough? Of course, no one wants to die early but, equally, no one wants to live long in a decrepit state or on a hospital bed. But even in reasonably good health, should one want to live very long? Is it any achievement or an honour to live very long? At a lunch in celebration of her official 80th birthday some years ago, Queen Elizabeth II amused her audience with this quote from Groucho Marx: “Anyone can get old, all you have to do is live long enough.”

(Published in Daily Times, 25 May 2018)

I am 68 years of age, with a margin of error of a few months. That is because when and where I was born, almost all children were delivered by traditional dais (midwives) at home and no one kept any records. So my date of birth is based on a later recollection by my mother, which was recorded after the passage of many years on my school admission application.

My father was too pre-occupied with matters of state, if I may put it that way, to worry about his children’s dates of birth. Childbirth was part of domestic matters, which was the domain of women. He was the office man, too busy running the railways to concern himself with his children’s dates of birth.

Being 68, or thereabouts, I am now at a point in my life when I think of death, rather often. In anticipation of that eventuality, I have prepared a legal will, taken out a funeral insurance plan and prepared a folder containing some important information to assist my wife and two sons in settling my financial and sundry matters when the day comes.

Most people, definitely in our part of the world, dread the “d” word and avoid it like the plague. Strange as it may seem, the nearer someone is to death, the less the word is mentioned in their presence. It becomes a taboo word.

So, whenever I mention to my family and friends my wish to do a few things and do them quickly because I may not be around for much longer, their instant reaction is to comfort and reassure me by saying that I will live long, very long.

Now, do I really want to live very long? And how long is long enough? Of course, no one wants to die early but, equally, no one wants to live long in a decrepit state or on a hospital bed. But even in reasonably good health, should one want to live very long?

Besides, is it any achievement or an honour to live very long? At a lunch in celebration of her official 80th birthday some years ago, Queen Elizabeth II amused her audience with this quote from Groucho Marx: “Anyone can get old, all you have to do is live long enough.”

Personally, I don’t want to live very long even in reasonably good health, for one very good reason. As one grows old, so do one’s near and dear ones. And whilst one may consider oneself fortunate to live healthy to a ripe old age, the chances are that not all one’s children and grandchildren will be equally fortunate.

Such is life that afflictions, accidents and misfortunes are unavoidable, generally and statistically speaking. And there is probably no greater grief for parents (and grandparents) than to see their children (or grandchildren) suffer in any way, let alone see them die in their own lifetime.

The longer you live, the higher the statistical probability of some kind of tragedy or misfortune afflicting those nearest and dearest to you. True, it can happen at any time and age, but the probability increases with the passage of time.

Perhaps nothing of the kind happened to the Australian scientist, Dr David Goodall, who nevertheless decided to end his own life at the age of 104 a few weeks ago. He was in reasonably good health for his age, yet confined to his home and in need of constant care, which was provided to him by his daughter.

“I greatly regret having reached that age,” the Edith Cowan University ecologist said in an interview on his last birthday. “I’m not happy. I want to die. It’s not sad particularly. What is sad is if one is prevented. . . . If one chooses to kill oneself, then that should be fair enough. I don’t think anyone else should interfere.”

Since Australian law wouldn’t allow assisted euthanasia, Dr Goodall had to travel to Switzerland to end his life with dignity and without pain. This has given a boost to the debate about assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia not just in Australia but in many Western countries.

Marshall Perron, who introduced the world’s first euthanasia legislation in Australia’s Northern Territory as its chief minister (which was later overturned by the Federal Government in Canberra), said it was disgraceful that Prof Goodall did not have the option of dying in his own home with loved ones by his side.

“A compassionate society would accommodate the wishes of a competent citizen who believed their life has run its course and was devoid of any joy,” Mr Perron said, commenting on Dr Goodall’s situation.

In 2002, there was the even more thought-provoking case of another Australian, Lisette Nigot, who terminated her life just before she turned 80. In a suicide note she wrote: “After 80 years of a good life, I have [had] enough of it. I want to stop it before it gets bad.”

An atheist, Ms Nigot wrote in her final statement: “The life of an individual, voluntarily terminated, is of small importance compared with the death statistics relative to crime, accident, war and other similar causes of human demise which are viewed by society as a whole with regret, but accepted with relative equanimity.  Why is there pressure against helping or allowing people who have had enough of living … to fulfil the longing for final peace?”

Ms Nigot killed herself two weeks after the heart-wrenching double suicide death of a relatively healthy couple in their late 80s, neither of whom was willing to accept the prospect of outliving the other.

Like death, the perils of old age are inevitable, though they may differ vastly from one person to another. Ageing may not hit everyone with the same ferocity or brutality. But this, our beautiful world, a place of joy, happiness and celebration is also a terrible place, one of affliction, anguish and pain.

  • by Razi Azmi
This entry was posted in Current Affairs. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Living long: but how long is long enough?

  1. AKaafir says:

    Tough topic, and eventually everyone has his/her say on it if they are lucky. Here is my two Khota Paisas worth:
    We do not want to live ( that is we do not want to be ) because of some fear. It is the fear of pain, fear of disease, fear of dependency, fear of seeing one’s loved ones suffering, fear of loss of what and who one loves, fear of decrepitude, etc. The answer is simple and given a gazillion times all over the world through out man’s history. An instance of it is by Mansur Al-Hallaj … famous but mostly misunderstood, but then the simple answer is nearly always misunderstood. Al-Hallaj said An Al Haq, and if that is true which I think it is, then it is impossible to not be. All that is left then is to learn the unending lesson of how to live with one’s fears. I can say this because after all I am A Kaafir.

    • Dr Ashraf says:

      Agreed (but if we have the courage to agree with Mansur then we should also have the courage to proclaim it instead of calling ourselves kafirs)

  2. Javed Agha says:

    Very interesting and thought provoking article. You have touched an important subject as many of us are in that age group where we have started giving a serious thought that our time in this world is limited. You are right in suggesting that one should not live an age where one sees the deaths of very dear ones. However one needs great courage to look into reality and bring an end to life. I do not know whether I will ever be bold enough to consider taking my own life.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      For those of you who force themselves to go to work 5-6 days a week, against their will, beyond the normal age of retirement, merely to upgrade their home or to buy a second home, I recommend this earlier piece by me:
      http://www.raziazmi.com/?p=117
      “To retire or not to retire”, published 2006

  3. M. Anwar Hossain says:

    “Man departs, but remains his dream. That face and I will remain forever in that dream.” – Jibonanondo Das
    Leaving this beautiful world with no remorse but with grace, leaving the dream for the dear ones who cares – what best it could be to say farewell.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Best to remember the famous quote, commonly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but probably of earlier (Persian?) origin: “When you were born you were crying and everyone else was smiling; Live your life so, at the end, you’re the one who is smiling and everyone else is crying.”

  4. Amir Siddiqui says:

    Great article based on reality.

  5. Merima says:

    Dear Razi Azmi
    how brave this article is… beautifully written. You touched our souls, our fears… I remember my mother saying “I don’t want to depend on anyone, I would like to die with integrity”….. as a young woman I didn’t understand that fully… now I know, we should know when is the right time to go… if life gives us that option… many, many lost their lives and didn’t even a chance to think, to decide their end. For those who have that option, we need to learn when to say goodbye, when is truly enough, when we reconcile beauty and terror of the end. Merima

    • Razi Azmi says:

      We still don’t have that option, Merima. Dr Goodall had to travel to Switzerland to exercise his choice. I hope that assisted suicide will become legal one day. But I do understand the objections, I mean the ethical objections (not the religion-based opposition). Before assisted suicide is allowed to become generalised, so to speak, society has to ensure that the elderly and the terminally sick are not made to feel unwelcome. Their is a danger that their “right to die” may be viewed rather as “a duty to die”, as they are a “burden” on their carers, particularly those closely related to them.

  6. Shahab says:

    Well written and articulated. I find it rather intriguing (working in a clinical setting) that many patients and families from religious backgrounds are so incredibly resistant and disgruntled at discussions regarding death/dying – even if their relative is extremely aged and with a terrible quality of life. I would have thought that if one has such strong convictions of the rewards of the afterlife – prolonging an arduous life on earth of one’s decrepit family member would be complete defiance of any logic?
    Would be interested to know your thoughts on this Mr Azmi.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      There is a very very serious argument to be made against general acceptance of assisted suicide, as opposed to those on life support or those who themselves want to cling on to dear life. Where and how will society draw the line separating the “right to die” from a “duty to die”? Or, to put it differently, how are we to prevent the right from degenerating into a duty?

    • Dr Ashraf says:

      Logic is that ‘rewards’ are contingent on obedience… therefore the disobedience of self-destruction precludes all rights to any ‘rewards’
      (just clarifying the logic not defending it)

  7. David M. Fahey says:

    At 81, my eyes aren’t great (genetic cornea scratches and the more usual problems), but aren’t terrible. As my mother lived into her mid-80s and my father into his early 90s, I suppose that I have a few more years ahead of me. My wife is 67 and our daughter 31. Hate to leave them. Have you seen this new book: In The 100-Year Life – Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, published June 2nd 2016 by Bloomsbury Publishing, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott outline the challenges and intelligent choices that all of us, of any age, need to make in order to turn greater life expectancy into a gift and not a curse.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      I haven’t read the book (by Gratton and Scott) but certainly agree that we need to make intelligent choices “in order to turn greater life expectancy into a gift and not a curse.” That surely is the way forward for the vast majority of us, but society (and state) should not prevent those who prefer or choose to go voluntarily (prematurely, one might say) from being able to do so.

  8. Dr Ashraf says:

    Brilliant article and immense food for thought… specially in terms of the underlying concept and its preemptive relevance for healthy people as well (e.g. the double suicide of the relatively healthy couple cited in the article)… in my humble opinion this is THE most critical global issue of the present era…!!!

  9. Carl Pletsch says:

    Is making room for others on our planet a reasonable motive to add to the mix? It seems so to me.
    Whether or not we want to claim the right to end our own lives, our ability to accept our own mortality and, to use the ‘d’ word, Death, seems an important quality of a good life.

  10. Khurram says:

    Good one again. After reading the article and the
    comments I just don’t want it to have the duty to die, as
    you said, because age discrimination already
    exists in the job market.

  11. Dewan Quadir says:

    I have gone through the preamble and found it would be interesting to read the whole article. I have not given any serous thought on the matter of living long. It will be nice to live long with good health and ability for movement. I will comment on the article as soon as I finish reading it.

  12. Jacob Kipp says:

    Old friend, We have both seen many years and now have to confront old age and finally our death. Your article is frankly moving and reflects the sort of thought I have come to expect from you. We look at those whom we will leave behind, our children and our grand children and grasp that they are one form of our immortality because they are of us. We authors have a second form in the works we leave behind in libraries for others to read. Finally, if we were lucky enough to be teacher we have our students, whom we hope we help to educate. In that respect I count you as one opf the best students that I ever had as a teacher and feel privilege now to count you as a friend. Our challenge now is to grow old with dignity.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Thank you very, very much, Jake, for your very kind words. You inspire me now just as you did many decades ago as teacher and mentor.

    • Dr Ashraf says:

      One man’s dignity may be another man’s misery….
      Suppose a person wants to end their life at the slightest feeling of discomfort… but others think that the person’s decision is not fully ‘dignified ‘….
      Who are we to impose our constructs/definitions on individuals?
      Why shouldn’t people be allowed to end their lives if they want to?
      Is it really justified to convince them not to?

  13. Pradeep Kalra says:

    As usual a nicely written article. The subject chosen applies to all who have reached the age where awareness of mortality becomes very strong. One should,as per the author,sort and fix all the financial obligations before leaving this world which I think is very sensible and practical.
    In my experience most of us would like to live a long life and enjoy it in good health provided we have the means. Advancement in medical science has already gone a long way to increase our life spans. People have started travelling in large numbers when they hit 70 or more. We see a lot of successful individuals in their late 70’s and early 80’s who are pretty active and seem to be enjoying their lives. As an individual I am for a long and healthy life and wouldn’t mind the least if the Maker lets me make it. Would not mind if it is 85 or a few years more.
    After reading your article I have also decided to make a folder and put a detailed list of all my worldly possessions in orderly manner. So accept my thanks for this. Cheers.

  14. Jerry Pattengale says:

    I hope when you’re 104 we can reflect on this piece and pick up the conversation. Engaging thoughts and questions. With a recent quadruple bypass surgery, two kids with chronic diseases, and many days researching civilizations, the questions about mortality and quality of life certainly hit. As a Christian, and the resonance of the “lightness” C S Lewis talks about, I believe in the sanctity of life and God’s plan for our time here. The movie Silence and other powerful true stories stretch the situational side of this, but I still am one that believes the human narrative is divinely ordered. All said, appreciate this piece. Thanks. If I pass before you, I do hope you can send thoughts to my funeral. I have read your pieces for decades and hope you write for decades more. Sydney is a better place for having you there and as a writer. Sincerely.

  15. Razi Azmi says:

    Dr Faraz posted this comment directly to me:
    Thoughtful article. I think longevity itself is not the issue, it’s about maintaining health, vitality and perhaps what is neglected in all societies, a role and connection to one’s community and finally a purpose for being.
    Tragedy and suffering are part of life and, yes, the longer you live the more likely that you will experience it in the later part of your life.
    Fundamentally, as a society, we under-utilize those over 70 as they are expected to die. However, the cumulative knowledge, both professional and personal, is at the very least an unexplored source of economic capital.
    I think the elderly can be used and paid to be custodians of matters too important to ignore, yet too distant to concern people occupied by full-time work, such as environment, historical and ethical education of children, etc.

  16. Priscilla Raj says:

    In future, one of the biggest ethical and also practical, pressed by the overwhelming increase in population, question is likely to centre around the question of ending one’s life on one’s own decision. Simple and beautiful essay.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *