The State of Aging in America

January 30, 2011

Last week three middle-aged people knocked on my door, and introduced themselves as children of my neighbor, two doors down.  She moved into the neighborhood within weeks of my move-in, and had been a school librarian in Iowa before her retirement, so we had a lot in common–I’d worked for decades in K-12 education and was also a librarian (but was never a School Librarian).   These lovely siblings were knocking on neighbors’ doors to tell us that Barbara had unexpectedly died the night before, and to invite us to a gathering to honor her, at her home, on Sunday.

This WAS a shock.  Barbara was only 69.  She was taking medication for high blood pressure, but there was no medical concern about imminent death.   Her kids said her greatest fear was a long period of incapacitation.

At the gathering, I heard more.  She called 911 herself, and after the ambulance came, she was intubated–a breathing tube was inserted down her throat.  She clearly indicated that she wanted it OUT, and it was removed.  She died before reaching the hospital.

Of course, I’m questioning the accuracy of the details, repeated secondhand.   But the point was, Barbara feared incapacitation worse than death.   And quite possibly consciously made a decision to die rather than start a series of medical interventions.   And there’s good reason for that.

Thanks to the false use of the phrase “death panels” and the propoganda against “killing grannie”, old people have even more to fear than if the original health coverage plan had been allowed to pass.  The personal cost of health care for the aging and infirm, and the difficulty these people have in simply getting through the day without help, makes dying a pretty attractive alternative.  At what point does it all become Just Too Hard?  Almost no one has a pension anymore.  And social security is again being attacked.   Most people are in the position of hoping they do NOT live long lives.

It shocks and saddens me to hear friends tell me they’d rather die than face the financial and personal catastrophe of too long a life.   THIS is the country I no longer recognize.

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