The Ineffability of Aging


IMG_9068No so long ago, I viewed 70 as the beginning of “old age.”

Trouble is that today—my 70th birthday—I don’t feel old.  Yes, I have grey hair, along with wrinkles in some places I would never mention in polite society. I do get annoying muscle cramps more often than I would like.  But I can climb six flights of stairs several times a day, and the body that I see in the mirror looks a whole lot better than it did when I was 18. I have fewer aches and pains today than I did at age 50, a combination of eating better and getting more exercise. And good genes certainly don’t hurt.

Statistics tell me that I could live another 10-15 years; given my health and genes, it could be easily be another 30 (my mother lived to 90; I have countless friends with parents approaching 100).  I’ve been encouraged by several articles I read of late, including a recent editorial in the New York Times by David Brooks, that report on the “U-Curve,”–the pattern of changing levels of emotional satisfaction over the course of life.  Statistics on the U-curve suggest that happiness/ contentment declines from childhood to about age 50, and then trends upward more or less steadily. Given my own emotional pattern over the decades, I should be bordering on ecstasy by 100.

But do I really want to live another 30 years?

An interesting approach to the question of aging comes from physician, academician and bio-ethicist Ezekiel Emmanuel. In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, he coined the term “American immortal”—what he calls the obsession “with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible.”  You can add to his list, of course, all of the various medical interventions—mechanical, surgical and pharmaceutical—that we use to mask the reality of our inevitable aging and mortality.

Emmanuel has concluded that he would prefer to die at age 75. In his view, that is plenty long enough to have lived a full and rich life with a satisfying career, a good marriage and a thriving family, including grandchildren.

It seems at first, to be a curious position for someone who opposes suicide, assisted or otherwise. But his argument is not that he refuses to live beyond 75.  Rather, he has decided that as he approaches 75, he will cease taking pro-active steps to retard aging or prolong his life. No flu shots, vitamins, or anti-biotics. No screening exams. No surgical or mechanical (e.g., a pacemaker) interventions. No chemotherapy.  No drugs (e.g., statins or blood pressure meds) to keep his bodily functions performing as if he was still young.

The only medical treatment he will consider is palliative care, if he needs it to keep him comfortable toward the end. In his words, “I will die when whatever comes first takes me.” This is, of course, what mankind has done for thousands of years … until medical technology took over the management of aging and death in the mid-1900’s.

I find his argument compelling, although I’m not sure 75 is the age I’d choose.  Perhaps 80 or 85.

And I also find myself pondering the boundaries of palliative care. Shouldn’t it include the repair—surgical, pharmaceutical or mechanical— of traumatic events that diminish the quality of life but will not kill you? A broken arm or leg?  A case of poison ivy. A hernia. And what about diet and exercise? Eating properly is its own reward, just in how you feel, regardless of its long-term benefits for your health.  Similarly, exercise stimulates brain chemicals that make you feel better, mentally and physically. Should I stop doing it simply because it has the age defying-ability to preserve muscle tone and bone density?

What would you do?

P.S. Emmanuel explicitly reserves the right to change his mind at any point along the way!


  1. Wow, Mary. As usual, this nail is centered under your hard-hitting hammer. I’ve been pondering this very topic, being several months ahead of you on the calendar. Happy birthday, by the way.

    My daughter is my medical executor, should my husband pass from the scene. When I reminded her I want to be left on the floor if I should fall there with a stroke (or whatever), she pointed out that the stroke might not kill me. “Would you want to hang on with half a body for years when you could be whole?” Uhm, well. No. So that’s the meat of the nut. We may not want to live indefinitely, but neither do we want impairment or suffering for longer than … a few hours? A few days?

    My ideal scenario is to put my head down on the table after the punkin pie on Thanksgiving, with the family gathered around. Yeah, that would mess up their day, but they wouldn’t have to make an extra trip, and they’d know that’s what I hoped for. Given the likelihood that my far-flung family will ever be together for Thanksgiving again, I’d better dream up a more realistic fantasy. Drop while leading a writing workshop? That could be it.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sharon … I love the image of laying my head down on Thanksgiving day … giving one last round of thanks, and then breathing my last. But as we all know, it may not work that way. What I do feel very strongly is that I will not take any “extra-ordinary measures” … that I will let whatever gets me first, take me.

      But we have all changed our minds many times along the way. The important part is not to lock in a future decision but to have explored the options, well in advance.

  2. Mary, as you know, I read this post this morning on my phone, then went on about my business for the day. I planned to comment sometime over the weekend. But I find that Emmanuel’s idea and your engagement with it has caught my attention and just won’t leave. I practicality of the idea is appealing. Yet, like you, I don’t like the number. 75 is far too young. I think of my husband at 76 who is still bringing is significant income through online teaching; I’d certainly not want 75, even 80 to be his lottery pick. I think of me too, and the effect I’d like to continue to have on my grandchildren. When I was 42 I had the strongest sense that I was half way through my life. If my math holds, I’ve got another 18 years. I can live with that. And Sharon, I love your idea of “going” when the kids have already gathered, just after the pumpkin pie. Again, so practical. Enjoy the whipped cream!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Janet – Emmanuel was 57 when he wrote the article, so was thinking 18 years ahead. Perhaps if he is as healthy at 75 as I am at 70, he will revise his preference to 85 or 88. As long as life is good, I say “go for it.”

  3. I seem to remember you are teaching a course on aging. If so, I wonder whether your students think aging is ineffable. It’s certainly inevitable. I’ve always said I don’t want to lose my mind or my waistline before I die. And I now calculate old age as someone 10-12 years older than I.

    Robert Browning’s lines comes to mind as a hopeful goal: Rabbi Ben Ezra
    Grow old along with me!
    The best is yet to be,
    The last of life, for which the first was made:
    Our times are in His hand
    Who saith “A whole I planned,
    Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”

    Still, do I really want to live to be (gasp!) one hundred? You address some questions worth pondering coupled with intriguing sources. You always make me think, Mary. Hope you have/had a happy birthday.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Marian … ineffable to me means ‘beyond the capacity to express in words.” It is typically used in the context of discussions about God and the nature of being. But in our current environment, in which aging is seen more and more as a disease to be managed by our medical systems (rather than left in the hands of God or the Fates), it seems increasingly beyond my capacity to describe even my own aging in any meaningful way.

      Then too, the aging process is so very different for each of us … there are so many different facets of the process. In some ways, I feel that words fail me.

  4. Our financial advisor was here today to go over “some numbers” with us, and he very politely reminded me that in 2016 I’ll be 70 and have some mandatory payments to make. I thought of the number “70” and then sized that up against my husband’s current 77 and my older brother’s 82. Like the rest of you, I think 70 or 75 is far too young. Perhaps closer to 85 is where I’d set my sights, but then I’m not in charge am I. And although we have assisted suicide here in Oregon, it is likely not the path I’d choose. I think I want to go with Sharon’s option. Actually, some of my family members would deserve it! They’ve spoiled many of my Thanksgivings previously. Seriously, these are serious questions to ponder. Mary, thanks for another intriguing post. And I think I’m leaving this on your actual birthday so happy birthday!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sherrey … thanks for the birthday greetings. We shall have to share our “ideal” age as the years go by … and see what changes over time (besides our chronological age!).

  5. Happy Birthday, Mary! I’m not far behind that 70 milestone. My thoughts about aging: in so many ways, I love where I am, would not want to go back and live through all it took to get where I am today and basically feel age is only a number. But on the realistic side, I do feel my body aging and am experiencing a slow decline, a new normal of function that reminds me that i am on the tail end. I had to face my mortality at 50 due to a cancer diagnosis so aging is viewed in the light of gratitude for being given a second chance. It all boils down to health and if I feel as well as I do now, 75, even 80 is too soon to leave. It reminds me of Abraham Lincoln’s quote “It’s the years in a life it’s the life in the years that count” (paraphrased) Not that I get a vote in the matter! I love Sharon’s vision but in the meantime, I’m enjoying each day of health and well-being no matter the number of years. Thanks for another thought-provoking post and discussion.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks Kathy … I love the Lincoln quote … I think the takeaway for me is that we have to be grateful for every day of good health and “feeling good.” I guess I do wonder if the definition of “feeling good” will change as well.

  6. Mary I like it particularly as I am now 84 believe it or not, its been a long time eh… Brian

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks Brian … look forward to seeing you when we are the Antipodes this winter … will let you know our plans.

  7. Mary, A reflective, thoughtful piece. Congratulations! 70 is a great age. You may have slowed down a bit but you no longer have the angst or the obligations that you had when you were younger. You’re much freer to do and say and be what you want. Just how long do we want to live? I ascribe to the Mexican belief in fate – si te toca, te toca – if it’s your turn, it’s your turn (to go). The truth is we have no say as to when we will go. We can look after ourselves and lead a healthy life but perfectly healthy people drop dead every day while sickly people live on. We all have our turn and nothing we can do about it. I’d hate to think my life will end at 75. I’m already 71 and loving life, and being more productive and creative than ever before. Yes, I am in a hurry to get my books out because tomorrow I might have a stroke and that would be it. In a way it’s living on the edge as we know the end is not far away. Say I have another fifteen years, ten of which I’m still productive. Fifteen years ago, I was in my fifties and making a new start in this country. So time is more precious than before but let me tell you that I intend to take full advantage of the time left, whether it be one day, one year, or I live to 100 years. That’s all we can do. Make the best of the time we have.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Pennie … my phrase was always “when you ticket gets punched ….” And I will repeat my response to Kathy … every day of feeling good is precious and to be appreciated … we do not have control over when or how it will end. But exploring the options in advance gives me a better chance of stacking the odds in my favor.

      Happy writing!