Vail Daily column: Is living longer better?
Editor’s note: The first part of this column appeared Oct. 21.
Who would have thought that there could be such a thing as an evolution of a better dying process and longer life expectancy? Well there is. This progress has occurred within the past 75 years where, irrefutably, modern medicine (Eastern as well as Western) has profoundly changed human life expectancy.
While genetics, sanitation awareness, nutrition and protection from the elements are factors of extending lifespan, modern medicine may very well be solely responsible for enabling people to live longer lives.
The conundrum may be that the number of years lived may not necessarily equate to the quality of life during that extended period. Modern medicine has turned aging into a medical experience whereby medical professionals play an ever-increasing role in the quality of our longer lives. Life expectancy can be quantified in definitive terms, but the quality of it is so personal and subjective that only the patient can describe, albeit subjectively.
Because modern medicine has become so specialized, many medical providers are so specific in the treatments they provide that they too often address only the specific medical concern they are presented with. Take for example a breast cancer patient and the many doctors involved in treating the ailment. Of the team of doctors assisting the patient, medical oncologist, surgical oncologist, breast surgeon, plastic surgeon, radiologist, pathologist and radiation oncologist, which are charged with addressing the patient with their assessment of the “whole” treatment and effects to the patient? Perhaps the social worker? Unfortunately, palliative care has not been a significant part of the MD education.
There are repercussions of changing the natural order of life. For much of human existence, people did not have to plan for getting old. People worked, provided for their families and, more often than not, took a day at a time. End of life just came, and often came quick. The natural course of life was to die before old age.
This has changed notably in just a few short generations. Now, we have the ability to foresee and remedy many of the life threatening issues that had previously caused a rapid end of life. Our path to our mortality is now elongated. Life just does not stop unforeseeably, rather, life and quality of life tapers off. Sometimes life tapers in a gradual linear downward slope, sometimes in more vertical slope, and sometimes in a peak and valley trajectory.
Is living longer better?
There is no illusion to where this all ends. The course we choose for our mortality is a very individual one. Living a quality life and having a good culmination of life involves gives and takes. If we are enjoying the present, then perhaps we may have purpose and a reason to live for tomorrow. Having a strong social support system, being engaged with people and things outside of ourselves, doing volunteer work and sharing time with family are great motivators and reasons for living longer.
Perhaps one of our greatest hurdles to enjoying and sharing our road to mortality is our Western thinking. We Westerners value youth and place emphasis on maintaining one’s functional independence. Our focus on how to empower individuals to maintain their functional and physical independence throughout their lifespan has fomented a self-help philosophy, lending to individualism. Our decisions affect only “us” rather than the “we” among us. Unfortunately, this too often leads to a life of isolation in facilities where we are surrounded by people who barely know who we are as persons.
In non-Western societies, conversely, the importance is not on independence but on inter-dependence. The choices and decisions elders make affect family, friends and relatives. There is a cultural respect for elders that is inclusive. It is often a family responsibility to take in the aged and look after them.
Quality should facilitate a patient’s endeavors toward a “good” passage. As we are enabled to live longer, we need to be able to retain control of what happens to us, we need to be afforded dignity, privacy and have control over pain relief and our self-dignity. Further, we need to have a choice and the control over where and when death occurs (at home or elsewhere). Each of us must incorporate these personal choices within our treatment regimen to promote a “life well lived.”
Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Eagle County. Contact him at http://www.visitingangels.com/comtns or 970-328-5526.