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Living long: but how long is long enough?

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 for my school admission record.

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

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 an 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 the people around them. And whilst one may consider oneself fortunate to live healthy to a ripe old age, the chances are that not all of 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 an 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 avowed 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.