“Death is inevitable; Each moment is precious; Nothing matters in the End”
Recently, in a light conversation, I said, “We all are going to die” in the context of this dreaded pandemic. I could see the expression of people disliking that comment because no one wants to talk about death in our society. Death is seen as inauspicious. We all want to live in a fantasy and don’t want to think that we all have limited time. This thinking has repercussions not only on our health but also on our future. As the author says, “how we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive you will live forever.”
This book is actually about the experience of death and how the medical system has failed to understand what it means to deal with a finite life and make final years a joyful experience. Do we forget the inevitability of death and the fleeting nature of life? When we become old, we don’t want to talk about death, we talk about living.
The beauty of this book is that it has been written by a surgeon who is also a professor at Harvard Medical School. This book has his personal accounts of dealing with terminal patients and also the death of his own father. The author has shown how the medical system has failed to educate the medical professionals about aging, frailty, or dying. Gawande speaks about the failure of medical system in informing or educating a patient about his condition? There is need to understand how the whole process unfolds and how does it make an impact on people around them.
I remember even I didn’t understand the meaning of death, and what does death means to me till someone close died in my family. The problem with us as a society is that we teach everyone, not so important things – earn a lot of money, build a big house, clear all damn exams existing in the world by memorizing all formulas, cram an entire dictionary for that GRE examination and also prepare to go abroad and earn a shit loads of money. But no one teaches us how we should live our lives. What is the meaning of death? And especially, when we become old, we don’t know what we are fighting for. What are our priorities? What are the trade-offs we are willing to make? We don’t discuss what are our fears/hope for the future. What are we willing to sacrifice? What are we willing to lose?
How care of the elderly has changed from ‘multi-generational systems support’ provided by the family to institutionalized nursing homes in our times. Modern nursing homes act as prisons. Elderly don’t feel good in these homes. They feel restricted and chained in these nursing homes. Old people living here always felt the longing for being at home where they can have their privacy.
We are so engrossed in living this life that we forget to ask the question what’s the purpose of our lives? Did we ever ask this question to ourselves? What makes life worth living when we will become old and unable to care for ourselves? To answer this question, the author discusses psychologist Abraham Maslow‘s influential paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation” which is depicted in the form of a pyramid and talks about the hierarchy of needs of people. According to Maslow, ‘safety’ and ‘survival’ remain the primary and fundamental goals of our life even in our old age.
People in old age focus on being rather than doing and they live in ‘the present than the future’. Old age generally functions at the peak of this pyramid and focuses on ‘self-actualization.’ “Living is a kind of skill. The calm and wisdom of old are achieved over time,” says the author. As per various experiments (discussed in this book by the author) conducted during some crises like the 9/11 attacks, the SARS epidemic 2003, etc., old and young both valued the bliss of life and focused on being rather than doing. This might be true for the current pandemic also. People these days from of all generation are slowly realizing the meaning of life.
This book also shows the results of experiments of assisted living done on various old people where they were given small freedoms in terms of taking care of plants, spending time with a cat, a dog or a bird, etc., helped them to live a longer life. The most important finding of the experiment was “having a reason to live” which reduced the death rate. Harvard Philosopher Josiah Royce in his book, “The Philosophy of Loyalty,” inform us that people seek a cause beyond themselves. That cause could be anything: it can be small or very big. ‘We all require devotion to something more than ourselves for our lives to be endurable.’
The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror. But if you do, it is not.Josiah Royce(The Philosophy of Loyalty)
The biggest problem in the medical sector is that they never focused on the well-being of the people, rather they focused on physical health. They concentrated on repair of body parts and not the nurturing of the human soul. Not only medical field but the society as a whole needs to understand this, as people grow old and become aware of their fleeting life, they are more interested in writing the story of their lives and believe in living in the moment.
Amid this pandemic, there is a need to remember our old traditions of the ‘art of dying’ and accept death and decline as normal and eternal truth. We must accept our lives of old age that will come along with sickness, frailty, isolation. Ultimately, we will need the support and care of others. We would rather spend last days of our lives with our family members than in ICU. In a nutshell, Gawande has said a lot of things about life and death and most importantly how medical science/field can correct the wrong committed till today not accepting the inevitability of old age and death in this book. Acceptance will lead to finding solutions that can make old people’s lives better and joyful in their last days.