That’s a question that Dr. Laura Carstensen regularly fields after explaining why older people are happier than younger ones—the basis of the ubiquitous Happiness U-curve. As I admit in my talk, I didn’t really believe the curve existed until I understood why. Carstensen, a psychologist and the founder of the Stanford Longevity Center, explains it beautifully.
I fell in love with neurologist Oliver Sacks' writing decades ago, after reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat, a collection of case histories of patients with bizarre brain deficits or excesses, and I've been a fan ever since. I'm interested in medicine and Sacks is a wonderful wordsmith, but his humanism and empathy are what make his writing so compelling and his patients so lucky. Now 81, Sacks recently learned that he has less than a year to live. His essay about this is another astonishingy lucid, even joyous, piece of writing, which brought to mind a piece he wrote 18 months earlier called "The Joy of Old Age Age. (No kidding.)"
The cover story of the October 2014 Atlantic magazine, “The New Science of Old Age,” features a white-bearded skateboarder careening between two articles that encapsulate American ambivalence about longevity: here’s why our kids could significantly outlive us and how awful that would be. Below, my Letter to the Editor calling out the unacknowledged ageism that saturates both articles, followed by more examples.
In a New York Times op-ed titled “On Dying After Your Time”, prominent bioethicist Daniel Callahan concludes that we should help young people become old, but that when it comes to the old “our duty may be just the reverse: to let death have its day.” It provoked these rebuttals from me and from my colleague Elizabeth Schneewind:
The "assisted suicide" lines used to be drawn more sharply for me. After all, I had in-the-trenches experience. My mother was a charter member of the Hemlock Society, the first national “right-to-die” organization.
A good friend passed on a DVD of my This Chair Rocks talk to a filmmaker acquaintance, who had a serious critique. She found the talk compelling and called me “a smart and wise cheerleader for this next passage,” but continued, “What I felt missing in her talk was death. She moved quickly over it, saying that her big surprise was how little older folks feared death. I think she is wrong, but she has been immersed in this research far longer than I have. I think we [all] fear death; it is the great unanswered question.