Death is inevitable, so let the old embrace it

1879

Face it: you’re going to die.

You can try to put this fact out of your mind if you wish, though you will find that it becomes progressively harder as you grow older. At 20 personal extinction has roughly the same prominence in any normal person’s thoughts as the theoretical possibility of a lightning strike or asteroid impact.

By 60 it seems more like an approaching express train when one has foolishly wandered onto the track and found one’s foot trapped by a closing point.

You can delude yourself that science is going to deliver some sort of actual or virtual immortality, perhaps through cryogenics or by downloading the contents of your brain onto a computer. Though frankly I wouldn’t waste even a bargain USB stick on preserving mine.

It’s like fantasising that you’re going to win big on the Lottery or, for those of us who enjoy writing, that we’re going to become the next J.K. Rowling or win the Nobel Prize for literature. The thing is, though: it’s not going to happen. But death assuredly is.

I think we would all be a lot happier if we accepted that, embraced it even, and stopped looking for escape clauses that do not exist.

As a doctor pointed out to me some time ago, the human body has a design life of approximately 40 years, and after that it is entirely natural for bits of it to stop functioning effectively. I can think of one bit of mine in particular that is a faint shadow of its former self.

Life expectancy keeps increasing, to the dismay of all in the pensions industry, but we seem much better at measuring life by length than quality. Time gained only to be spent in a care home in the interludes between bouts of ultimately futile hospital treatment seems to many of us a fate far worse than death.

We are constantly being badgered to do things (or, more usually, not to do things) that will keep us healthier for longer and so “save money for the hard-pressed NHS”. Stop smoking, stop drinking alcohol, don’t touch sugar, avoid all meat (but particularly bacon), eat ten pieces of fruit and vegetables every day, take more exercise, lift weights … the list of things we are nagged about seems endless, and is often amusingly contradictory.

But if we reduce our chances of dying of lung cancer by giving up smoking, or of cirrhosis by stopping drinking, or of diabetes by cutting out sugar, we aren’t suddenly going to live forever. We are just going to die of something else, almost certainly equally expensively and unpleasantly, because I’ve read the menu very closely and there aren’t a whole lot of ways of dying that sound like much fun at all.

Dementia recently became the biggest killer in the UK, overtaking heart disease. Because those who would once have keeled over with a fat- or fag-induced heart attack are now living long enough to develop dementia instead. Does this really count as progress?

Scientists researching dementia have high hopes of finding a treatment that will defer its onset by five years, which will massively reduce its impact – because in that time most of those who would have become afflicted with it will have died of something else.

In short: you cannot elude the Grim Reaper. Why even try?

When I read Jackie Kaines’ recent column here about bowel cancer I briefly wondered whether I had done the right thing by slinging the two screening kits that the NHS has so far sent me into the bin, on the grounds that smearing my own excrement onto cards in a prison-style dirty protest was so far from being my sort of thing that death seemed a more aesthetically appealing option.

But it has not changed my view. I don’t understand why the NHS is spending its allegedly scarce money sending out these kits to the over-60s, only for nearly half of them to end up in the trash. Let hypochondriacs who enjoy messing around with their own waste products pay for their own.

By all means test the young for dread diseases that might curtail their active lives. Doctors: if a young person pitches up at your surgery displaying all the symptoms of a brain tumour, maybe refer them for some early investigation and treatment rather than sending them home to take paracetamol, which is exactly what you did with a number of my now deceased acquaintances, who were thus deprived of decades of good quality life.

But as a man with his 63rd birthday approaching at the speed of an out-of-control locomotive with its horn blaring, I feel entitled to say: leave the over-60s alone. A friend who recently passed that landmark birthday observes that “since I passed 60 last year I’ve felt as if I’ve been pursued relentlessly by people in white coats and blue latex gloves”.

What’s the point? We’re going to die of something reasonably soon anyway. Just let us get on with it in our own time, thanks, and worry about something else.

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