“Living longer”, is that good news?

by Jana Kralova
University of Bath

We will live much longer than any other generation before us. Is that good news? Have you asked yourself what does “living longer” actually mean? In what condition will you be in when your time for “living longer” comes? And how much of your life does this phase amount for?

For about first decade following your retirement, you are likely to be in fairly good condition and thus be able to enjoy a rather good quality of life. It is that time when people often go travelling, write books, enjoy their families, hobbies and so on. That is a good time. And it used to be the case that we would die at the end of that decade. Fairly worn out, but quite happy. Peter Laslett (1991) calls this the third age.

However, nowadays we may live extra decade, two, or even three. Yes, we can make arrangements and prepare, be financially secure and so on, but (!) is that really going to make the difference to our quality of life?

It is typical that with your withering health and independence some kind of accident will occur, usually a fall. As a result of it, you tend to be hospitalised or cared for for some weeks or even months. You may have to go to respite care for some time or you may need to move to a care providing facility. Your inability to maintain your routine will further exaggerate your deterioration all of which will limit your ability to take part in everything that you have been; spouse, grandparent, volunteer etc., as well as majority of what you found the joy in; your hobbies or going out.

So this “living longer”, what do you think it is like? The bedroom decorated with few meaningful belongings, the bed – with you in it, the window and four walls. If you are in what academics call the fourth age, you will be very frail, possibly doubly incontinent, your sight, your taste, your hearing, your ability to orient yourself in time and space may all be severely compromised. You may be experiencing a lot of physical as well as emotional pain. Even if you are in fairly good condition, your ability to do things will be minimal, but you will have a lot of time on your hands to think.

Think over and over again about your life. All the things that you have done right, all the things that you have done wrong, of all the people that you have loved, but also of all of those that you have hurt and can no longer say sorry to as they are either dead or lost along the journey of life. You may have a regrets that will haunt you, you may wish you had lived your life differently. Such a thoughts may be quite distressing and have been termed biographical pain by Prof. Malcolm Johnson.

Alternatively, it is just as possible that you may develop some form of dementia.  Although there is valuable data from research, even more experience of the family members and carers but still, do we really know how that person feels? How will you feel? How about if we are at times completely aware of our unawareness at other times?

As a result of these processes you will become very dependent on your carer; the majority of us will. That is not only for food and hygiene but also for the human contact and the daily interaction. With the majority of your family members  overcommitted with work load, families, living in different countries or simply busy, it is likely that for anything from few days up to a decade or even longer your quality of life may depend on a person who doesn’t really know you, who is likely to be paid very little but upon whom your quality of life is likely to depend.

Are you hoping that paying a live-in carer or private care will guarantee you a good quality of life? But how about this biographical pain and lack of social contact?  Simple things such as; a heartfelt hug, a meaningful conversation or a cup of tea just the way you like are amongst  the most painful losses that we may encounter during our “living longer”. And how about if in order to “save your life” upon your development of diabetes you will be deprived of your favourite sweets? And in order to reduce your blood pressure you will no longer be allowed butter on your toast or that morning cup of coffee? And of course, for hygiene purposes you will be having to undergo that bed wash every morning, during which you will freeze no matter what is temperature in the room at the time because your circulation is no longer able to warm you up. In fact, you may be cold for the rest of the day, this does not really occur to many. And would they put your make up and do your hair the way you used to do for last seventy odd years? Will you have a chance to choose your TV channel or your type of music? Will someone take you outdoors?

Once as a carer I was asked by a man who could be said to have been in fourth age and with advanced dementia whether I would go out for dinner with him. At the time I thought “oh bless you” and politely refused. However, looking back at it now I wish I had taken him out. Although from procedural and practical point of view it would have been impossible. Now I understand, but it is too late, John is dead. He liked his coffee fairly strong with two spoons of sugar and a cigarette. No, it wasn’t good for his health, but it made him happy.

Hence my question to you: is “living longer” good news?

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4 thoughts on ““Living longer”, is that good news?

  1. Tony Walter

    Thank you! One of the best things I have read on the fourth age and on preparing for the end of life. You’ve blended research knowledge, personal experience and a very relevant photo into a personally and socially challenging blog.

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  2. Mary Ellen Macdonald

    Wow, Jana, you paint such a vivid picture…I have to temper the image, however, with the (coffee) cup half full: Can there not be beauty, peace, acceptance even serenity (forgive my romanticism!) that comes from/with ageing? Are we so bound to the physical body that the demise and decay of the physical directly (and negatively?) determines the spirit? Forgive me if I am just being a Pollyanna…

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  3. jr508@bath.ac.uk

    Dear Mary,

    thank you for your response. Of course aging can be wonderful experience and I really wish it was so for everyone. However, that is often not the case and that very fact needs to be brought up to public’s attention. Spending several years in care practice I have little hope in romanticism and tend to follow practicalities. Half empty cups of tea and coffee are part of that not very pretty picture.

    Best wishes,
    Jana

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  4. Geraldine Cooney

    Dear Jana, You write a really powerful blog, drawing us into a ‘fourth age’ that most of us avoid thinking about. This stage of ageing is the ultimate leveller, where social and economic advantages no longer protect us. A thought provoking and empathic piece that powerfully conjures up how ‘care’ can be experienced.

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