‘Death is a very dull dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it.’—W Somerset Maugham
Social and medical advances have dramatically raised not only life expectancy but also the length of time we will be fit and active. As recently as 1910, average life expectancy in the UK was only 50 years. Today, men can expect to live to their mid-to-late seventies, and women into the early eighties.
This raises a number of issues, some would say problems, for society, medicine and individuals. Experts worry about the burden an ageing population places on pensions and the NHS. But, as American bioethicist Leon Kass argues, ‘the challenges of an aging society are finally not economic and institutional but ethical and existential’. Culturally, we seem confused in our attitudes to aging and indeed death. Modern medicine is defined by the struggle to keep the grim reaper at bay, and this constant striving to put off the inevitable – to ‘rage against the dying of the light’ – is in many ways laudable, expressing a celebration of life. But some fear we are sacrificing quality of life by keeping people alive, no matter how old or frail they become. Is today’s pursuit of immortality, and eternal youth, a desperate reaction to our loss of faith in the ‘eternal life’ promised by religion?
Is increasing the human lifespan a straightforward moral imperative, or should we accept death as something that gives meaning to life? Does our desire to live ever longer express a selfish attitude that neglects our responsibilities to those who will care for us? What does it mean to be old in a society in which people appear increasingly desperate to hold on to their youth, and the elderly are seen as a drain on resources? Are we so focused on living longer that we forget to live?
|Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there
peer (Lib Dem) in the House of Lords; author, Not Dead Yet: A Manifesto for Old Age and The Moral State We’re In; advisor to PM on volunteering.
|Professor David Oliver
national clinical director for older people, Department of Health; consultant physician, Royal Berkshire Hospital; visiting professor, medicine for older people, City University, London
|Dr Liz Lloyd
senior lecturer, Social Gerontology, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol; author, forthcoming Health and Care in Ageing Societies: A New International Perspective.
|Dr Marcus Richards
programme leader, Medical Research Council’s Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing; reader in cognitive epidemiology, University College London
associate fellow, Institute of Ideas