I was standing in my cubicle, a 24-year-old fact-checker envisioning a publishing career of glamor and greatness, suddenly shaking as I read the document my mother had mailed. It detailed her wish that I promise never to keep her or my father alive with artificial respirators, IV-drip nourishment, or anything else she deemed “extreme.”
I was horrified, and slightly angry. My mom was a 54-year-old literature professor who’d spent the 1970s eating whole grains and downing vitamins. She was healthier than anyone I knew. Why get so dramatic now? It seemed ghoulish, not to mention premature. But I scrawled my signature at the bottom of the page and shoved it into an envelope, my mother’s voice in my head, prodding me along.
As with the whole wheat and vitamins, my mother—back in 1990—was onto something long before it became conventional wisdom. But these days, Americans’ approach to aging and death is rapidly evolving, pushed both by the numbers and the grim reality behind them: In 40 years, there will be 19 million Americans over 85, all at high risk of losing the ability to care for themselves or dwindling away due to organ failure, dementia, or chronic illness. (The days of a sudden fatal heart attack are fading; by 2008, the death rate from coronary heart disease was down 72 percent from what it was in 1950.)
So while many seniors now live vigorous lives well into their 80s, no one gets a free pass. Eating right and exercising may merely forestall an inevitable and ruinously expensive decline. By 2050, the cost of dementia care alone is projected to total more than $1 trillion.
My mom’s decision to face her end came not from any of these facts, but from the nightmare of watching her own mother’s angry decline in a New York nursing home. “You’re all a bunch of rotten apples,” Grandma growled at visitors, the words erupting from her otherwise mute lips. And there she sat for three years, waiting to die. “Why can’t you just get me some pills so I can go?” she would sometimes wail.
The slide toward death was only slightly less awful for my father’s mother. Grandma Ada would greet me with a dazed smile—though it was impossible to know if she recognized the person standing in front of her wheelchair—before thrashing with involuntary spasms. An aide would come to restrain her, and then my dad and I would leave.
This cannot be right. This cannot be what we want for our parents—or ourselves. More