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Posted on November 12, 2014 at 10:11 PM

Reminders of our finitude always lurk close by, like Ezekiel Emanuel’s article in last month’s Atlantic, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” The head of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the National Institutes of Health gives reasons for not living beyond 75: inevitable decline, disability, incapacity, and diminishment of “creativity, originality, and productivity.” According to Emanuel, we wish to be remembered for our good years, prior to decline.

There are grains of truth here. Many of us “die” well before we are officially declared dead. I’ve seen patients kept alive for far too long in permanent vegetative states, while family dynamics, emotions, finances and scarce medical resources are depleted. We pay a high price for medical “progress.” I also know thriving, vibrant elderly, themselves significantly disabled and incapacitated.

Emanuel’s posture represents a deep-rooted cultural symptom — our fixation on productivity. “I produce, therefore I am of value.” From early on, we are conditioned to focus on performance, “making something of ourselves.” Even our leisure time is instrumental, a re-energizing in order to produce. And via our devices, work invades our leisure.

Retired SUNY Social Welfare Professor Edmund Sherman wisely writes of this in “Contemplative Aging,” particularly the quandary of retirement when people persistently ask, “So, what will you do?”

Now for the symptom’s underlying cause: We lack a cohesive, coherent, integrated philosophy of life-stages so that growing old beyond retirement years plays no meaningful role. It’s a stage we ignore, downplay, fear, or resist — a phantom stage, an anticipated accident waiting to happen.

Consider the term “stages,” pathways to something usually higher. Each stage unfolds within the context of a life-cycle. As such, each has value in itself and for later stages. In the natural cycle of birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age and death, we iconize youth’s vitality and adulthood’s productivity. But for many of us, old age carries no inherent meaning and denotes a dark void.

When I long ago visited the poet Elsa Gidlow, her self-sufficiency and youthfulness utterly impressed me. In her 80s, she managed to grow her vegetable garden and carry her own firewood. I confessed to Elsa my admiration for her youthfulness. She gently chided me, “Does not my age itself merit worth?”

The late Fredda Blanchard-Fields, noted psychologist at Georgia Institute of Technology, after rigorous research, found that older adults, from their 60s on, can compensate for physical and cognitive decline through gains in social and emotional aptitude, enhancing their ability to regulate emotions and face, think through and endure stress. Older adults are better equipped than younger adults to adapt to crises through patience, control of impulses, humor, measured decision-making, and seeing life’s big picture.

If wisdom is reflected in how we respond to stress and trauma — and I believe it is — then this translates into seniors’ capacity for wisdom.

Yes, there is physical and mental decline. But having age 75 as a benchmark for living long enough downgrades wisdom’s immeasurable value. Growing old does not guarantee wisdom. Yet we are more likely to acquire it as we grow old. Why? Because wisdom only comes after sustained reflection on our experiences and many rounds in life’s ring, after hard knocks and getting back up.

Herein lies inherent value to our declining years, when we ultimately arrive at “where we started” — the real possibility of embodying wisdom, embracing our finitude and life’s contingency. As T.S. Eliot writes in “Little Gidding”:

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

To see more of Dr. Brannigan’s work, go to

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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