Sometimes the simplest things in life seem so complicated that people have to cite statistics to prove a point. For example: That while death and illness can occur at any point in the course of life, the risk of dying from any disease rises with old age. With COVID-19, the risk of dying for older adults has been computed thus: 3-5 percent for those in the age bracket 65-74, 4-11 percent for those at 75 to 84, and a whopping 10-27 percent mortality for those 85 years old and above.
I think most elderly people know this already—even before the coronavirus pandemic struck. They are aware that they are especially vulnerable. They are not stupid; they can feel it in their chest, in their joints, and in their bones. They don’t need anyone to tell them they are at “high risk” because of their chronological age. With the little wisdom they have gained in life, they can see death coming anytime, but they prefer not to spend the rest of their lives thinking about it. Most would probably fear the pain and the prolonged suffering that might accompany dying—but maybe not as much as the thought of not ever seeing their loved ones again when the time comes.
Still, they would protest any policy that equates old age with sickness. This cruel discriminatory attitude is called “ageism”—the systematic stereotyping of people based solely on age. All over the world, a growing number of people enter their advanced years—sometimes way past their 80s—in reasonably good health, free from the ravages of chronic illness.
They know they are old enough to die. And they may sometimes leave explicit instructions not to resuscitate or hook them on a ventilator machine if their own hearts and lungs should fail them. I am one of them. At 74, I value my freedom to do the things I love more than health itself. I take care of my health so I can continue to be happy in the time that remains. But I avoid having to structure my life in a particular way just to be pronounced healthy and safe.
Essential to most people of my age is the ability to feel that they are not alone, isolated in a predeparture lounge to contemplate their impending death. When you’re made to feel you are being excluded—no matter if they say it’s for your own good—you wonder how the interest of the larger community is served by hastening this descent to infantilization.
More than death itself, the things I dread most are losing my mind and my autonomy to Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, which would prevent me from recognizing and communicating with my loved ones and my friends, and losing every reason to live—which, in my definition, is worse than dying.
My wife Karina taught me a lot about what living meaningfully means, particularly by the way she befriended her illness during the last years of her life. It’s been almost a year now (May 7) since she died. Throughout this past year, what has troubled me most is the thought that we did not have the chance to talk about death itself. I could sense that there were moments when she felt afraid and was close to giving up, but she never showed it. She left no instructions, and wrote no goodbye letters. In retrospect, I think she found little sense in brooding about death. She was a buoyant and practical person, and, till the end, she chose to be happy.
It was so like her to spend her final hours talking to our children and grandchildren abroad. Literally rejuvenated by this precious interaction with her grandchildren, she spent the rest of the afternoon merrily chatting with our daughter Kara while enjoying the snack the latter had prepared for her. Coming home from an early afternoon meeting, I found her preparing to have a full warm shower. She told me that I just missed seeing our newborn granddaughter Lila on Facetime. I remember marveling at her sunny disposition, with no inkling that death was just a few minutes away.
Four years earlier, she had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Twice she underwent angioplasty to ease the flow of blood into and out of her diseased heart. She had fairly long stretches of renewed strength after that, and we took advantage of these by traveling. But there were weeks when she was frail and unable to sleep. On that fateful day, she looked as though she had just emerged from a long dark winter. She was bursting with life again. But just a few minutes after she stepped into the bathroom, her heart stopped beating and she collapsed. Just like that.
I have spent this whole year wondering if I would have preferred for her to have gone slowly in a prolonged agonizing ritual of farewell. To imagine her gasping helplessly, alone, in an emergency room filled with COVID-19 patients—I think that would have broken my heart even more.
I believe the death of a loved one is the closest that one could get to experiencing death itself. You retain a deep memory of that moment and live to tell it. It compels you to take account of the things that matter beyond life itself. What might these be?
In my case, it was, firstly, to finally understand what love means, what caring means, what tenderness means. When Karina died, I began to reflect on the purpose of it all—why we ever live, what it is to be human, and why people we love who have gone ahead ever appeared in our world, and how their lives enriched ours.
Karina knew my love for motorcycles, and she never stopped me from pursuing this dangerous sport. “Ingat,” she would whisper every time I had to leave her bedside early in the morning for a ride. “Call or text me when you’re on your way home.” I still hear these words whenever I go out on my motorcycle, assured in the thought that, while I may be old enough to die, I should never be too old to remember what it means to live and be happy.