We meet occasionally at birthdays and celebrations. I wouldn’t go as far as to say we’re friends, but we enjoy talking to each other. We have the same age and share quite a few interests so it’s always good to catch up.
During this birthday dinner we don’t sit near each other so at coffee time I take my cup and sit down by her. I know her mother – in her eighties – took a fall and has been living with her ever since, so I naturally ask her how she is faring.
Her smile immediately vanishes from her face as she tells me having her mother with her is proving to be an ordeal.
The burden of old age
As I listen my heart goes out to her because I know they are a close-knit family. She and her older sister have always been very close to their divorced mother. An independent woman, the lady still lived by herself, leading a very active life until she took a fall a few months ago. Contrary to her wishes her daughter insisted she come and spend some time with her and her husband – her children being all grown up and independent nowadays – but soon she realized her mother was in no conditions to live by herself anymore. After the fall the lady was somewhat confused and forgetful of the most basic things, such as having a pot on the stove and living it there until the whole house smelt of burned meat.
As she goes on telling me about this I can see she looks very tired, and worried too, because she has to go to work every day and has no one to leave at home to care for her mother – nor the means to hire someone to so that; she confesses to me she is in a quandary, without knowing what to do next. Her children all have their lives and respective works – full time jobs – so as much as they already took turns to help their grandmother when she had to go somewhere a bit further or to fetch her for their family reunions, that is one thing and the other is to be available full time, every day of the week. When the weekend comes, her outings are much limited as she is constantly worried about leaving her mother, and feeling guilty, too, if she does.
She doesn’t say it, but there is no need. I can see her mother has become a burden in her life, and both of us know it will not get better, only worse. Her mother, once so autonomous, will become less and less so and she will certainly resent that fact that she will be depending on others more and more, so she will become more and more demanding and life for that family will become increasingly complicated.
This is a terrible problem modern societies are facing – how to care for our elderly? Decades ago, the family structure was completely different. Women stayed at home – not that I would like to go back to that. There were several generations under the same roof who helped one another. Grandparents helped parents raise their children and in turn were cared for when the time came when they could not fend for themselves. Houses or apartments were more spacious and there was time – a precious item that has become rarer and rarer in these days. Nowadays people live in much smaller apartments where most of the time there is no spare room for a needy family member, let alone space to accommodate an elderly person’s special needs such as an adapted bathroom or circulation space for a wheelchair. And what to say about having someone at home to care for the elderly; family members go out in the early morning – sometimes before dawn in the winter – and come back exhausted, after a stressful and tiring day, with little patience to speak or hear anyone, let alone the ramblings of their elderly parents who may already have a senile condition or, even if not, will certainly require some extra work from their already worn out children. Who by the way, with people living longer and longer, will not be so young themselves anymore, lacking the energy of their young days, long gone by.
As I drive back home after having said goodbye to this truly upset woman, I think it also has to do with the fact that science has found a way to prolong human life, but unfortunately without adding much quality to those extra years we are given. I know the will to live is something that runs deep inside every human being, and the strongest of instincts even in dramatic situations when death may seem the only way out of suffering; still, people cling to life. Most old people take more than twenty different pills every day that keep them barely alive while their health deteriorates and their motor functions decay. I know from experience how painful it is to see our loved ones slowly waste away. Then I think, if it is painful for us, imagine what it must feel like being trapped inside your unable body and knowing you will never be able to walk properly again, or to do the simplest things by yourself. I cannot begin to imagine the horror of it.
The myth of eternal youth
But then, maybe there is hope on the horizon. A few months ago I had the privilege of interviewing a famous Portuguese doctor, a scientist who talked to me about the future of medicine. She told me the scientific community is quite sure that, during this their millennium, human beings will attain immortality. I must have looked at her in disbelief as she said this, because she laughed and went on to explain the possible ways to achieve this. One would be the “biological way” and the other through technology. She believes the latter will be the one to come first because we control technology, while in biology we still do not control all the variables. She told me about research being done as to upload the human brain in the cloud and then connecting it to a humanoid body. This would mean achieving men’s oldest dream – the “death of death” as claimed by transhumanism. On hearing this the first idea that came to my mind was it would allow a person to be rid of an old, useless body and be connected to a young one, even if not “ human”, in the real sense of the word, one. Oh, to be inside of a twenty year old body again, with no pain in one’s joints, no difficult digestions, no white hair, no…I could think of so many afflictions even in our fifties, imagine when you are older!
I believe in scientists, of course, so I have been thinking more and more about what this doctor told me, and even reading a book she recommended; “Homo Deus” by Yuval Noah Harari is a remarkable book that gives us a terrifying glimpse of what may well be the future of humanity. Still it may take a while, and probably in my generation we will not be the ones to cheat death yet. I would not go as far as to wish for immortality, but I certainly wouldn’t mind to live longer if only my body and mind were in good shape!
I stop the car in my parking and as I walk towards the lifts, my head still full with this acquaintance’s story and the sci fi prospects for us humans in the third millennium, I cannot help but think with a shiver that my generation is not so young anymore. Our parents are getting old and frail and unable to fend for themselves. Yes, they may have become a burden. But we should never forget that we are the next in line. Difficult to accept, I know, but time is inexorable. No doubt about it – we will become a burden too, and there is no guarantee there will be anyone to care for us.
Unless, of course, science advances quicker than expected and my generation can be the first to enjoy a prolonged “youth”. Not too likely, but still a tempting thought. As in the eighties song by Alphaville, who wouldn’t like to be “Forever Young”?