Last week I visited my two half-brothers. Both have dementia and live in long-term care, one in the Sunnybrook Veterans’ Wing in Toronto (he served in Korea), and the other in a retirement home north of Kingston. One is 89 and the other 86. One is fairly coherent, the other has a hard time with phrases, so sticks to single words. Both are actively planning to ‘escape.’
So this is how it ends.
I am 71, my wife, 77. We’re both still working, still active, proud outliers on the bell curve. We’ll keep working and loving and exploring until we can’t.
Besides, Jean is a MAiD doctor. She provides medical assistance in dying. So the subject of death is not exactly a stranger, either to our experience or our conversations. Still, it’s hard not to wonder exactly how we can hold on tight to our days ahead and make them stretch longer.
New ideas about aging, retirement and death may not delay any of those things.
But at least they can help reframe the fear that the end is near. As they say, a problem redefined is a problem half-solved.
This week I came across two of these new ideas that struck me as original, doable and somehow comforting.
The first is by the model and social entrepreneur Sinead Bovell in an article in the Globe and Mail. While she writes mainly about how artificial intelligence can make our later years so much happier, she mentions in passing the Japanese idea of ‘ikigai’, which is “the reason you wake up in the morning.” If you have a good reason, you’ll live longer. Period. Yes, diet and exercise count, as does a strong sense of community. But ikigai, “the thing that drives you and is fundamentally critical to your existence,” counts for more.
A friend once told me that people our age “just want to stay in the game.” The game may be big-time law, or teaching, or home-making. It will change for sure, especially if you walk away from it abruptly when you retire, which means you have to quickly find another game. It seems the trick is to change your habitual, comfortable and often deeply meaningful game for another which you may not be good at and aren’t sure you want to play.
She believes that as we approach death chronological age makes less sense. The athletic 78-year-old could well have another 20 years in him; the doddery 70-year-old perhaps 10.
Counting how many years we have left may feel weird, but actuaries already do it, and we tend to underestimate how long we have left to live. Says the Institute for Fiscal Studies, “those in their 50s and 60s underestimate the chances of reaching 75 by a fifth.”
The other surprise is that our life expectancy rises for every year we manage to stay alive. In other words, the longer we live, the longer we can expect to live. An odd, counterintuitive idea, but I’ll take it.
The third surprise is the huge role that our attitude plays in how long we’ll live. She quotes the polling firm Ipsos-MORI: “On average, people who are negative about old age die seven and a half years before people who are positive.”
So, at a time when death has come knocking a bit too often, it’s comforting that how we think about it and how we frame our lives around it, can distract it a little.
As for me, I’ll fall back on Freud’s famous dictum: “Love and work…work and love. That is all there is.”