You Are Going to Die

17823744By Tim Kreider, originally published in the New York Times.

My sister and I recently toured the retirement community where my mother has announced she’ll be moving. I have been in some bleak clinical facilities for the elderly where not one person was compos mentis and I had to politely suppress the urge to flee, but this was nothing like that. It was a very cushy modern complex housed in what used to be a seminary, with individual condominiums with big kitchens and sunrooms, equipped with fancy restaurants, grills and snack bars, a fitness center, a concert hall, a library, an art room, a couple of beauty salons, a bank and an ornate chapel of Italian marble. You could walk from any building in the complex to another without ever going outside, through underground corridors and glass-enclosed walkways through the woods. Mom described it as “like a college dorm, except the boys aren’t as good-looking.” Nonetheless, I spent much of my day trying not to cry.

At all times of major life crisis, friends and family will crowd around and press upon you the false emotions appropriate to the occasion. “That’s so great!” everyone said of my mother’s decision to move to an assisted-living facility. “It’s really impressive that she decided to do that herself.” They cited their own stories of 90-year-old parents grimly clinging to drafty dilapidated houses, refusing to move until forced out by strokes or broken hips. “You should be really relieved and grateful.” “She’ll be much happier there.” The overbearing unanimity of this chorus suggests to me that its real purpose is less to reassure than to suppress, to deny the most obvious and natural emotion that attends this occasion, which is sadness.

My sadness is purely selfish, I know. My friends are right; this was all Mom’s idea, she’s looking forward to it, and she really will be happier there. But it also means losing the farm my father bought in 1976, where my sister and I grew up, where Dad died in 1991. We’re losingour old phone number, the one we’ve had since the Ford administration, a number I know as well as my own middle name. However infrequently I go there, it is the place on earth that feels like home to me, the place I’ll always have to go back to in case adulthood falls through. I hadn’t realized, until I was forcibly divested of it, that I’d been harboring the idea that someday, when this whole crazy adventure was over, I would at some point be nine again, sitting around the dinner table with Mom and Dad and my sister. And beneath it all, even at age 45, there is the irrational, little-kid fear: Who’s going to take care of me? I remember my mother telling me that when her own mother died, when Mom was in her 40s, her first thought was: I’m an orphan.

Plenty of people before me have lamented the way that we in industrialized countries regard our elderly as unproductive workers or obsolete products, and lock them away in institutions instead of taking them into our own homes out of devotion and duty. Most of these critiques are directed at the indifference and cruelty thus displayed to the elderly; what I wonder about is what it’s doing to the rest of us.

Segregating the old and the sick enables a fantasy, as baseless as the fantasy of capitalism’s endless expansion, of youth and health as eternal, in which old age can seem to be an inexplicably bad lifestyle choice, like eating junk food or buying a minivan, that you can avoid if you’re well-educated or hip enough. So that when through absolutely no fault of your own your eyesight begins to blur and you can no longer eat whatever you want without consequence and the hangovers start lasting for days, you feel somehow ripped off, lied to. Aging feels grotesquely unfair. As if there ought to be someone to sue.

We don’t see old or infirm people much in movies or on TV. We love explosive gory death onscreen, but we’re not so enamored of the creeping, gray, incontinent kind. Aging and death are embarrassing medical conditions, like hemorrhoids or eczema, best kept out of sight. Survivors of serious illness or injuries have written that, once they were sick or disabled, they found themselves confined to a different world, a world of sick people, invisible to the rest of us. Denis Johnson writes in his novel “Jesus’ Son”: “You and I don’t know about these diseases until we get them, in which case we also will be put out of sight.”

My own father died at home, in what was once my childhood bedroom. He was, in this respect at least, a lucky man. Almost everyone dies in a hospital now, even though absolutely nobody wants to, because by the time we’re dying all the decisions have been taken out of our hands by the well, and the well are without mercy. Of course, we hospitalize the sick and the old for some good reasons (better care, pain relief), but I think we also segregate the elderly from the rest of society because we’re afraid of them, as if age might be contagious. Which, it turns out, it is.

This article was originally published in the New York Times, and is reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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8 Responses to You Are Going to Die

  1. The author makes a good point, that much of society is based on forgetting about death and disease and then hiding it when it does happen.

  2. A great little article. I remember not too long ago when I was in college hearing about the sad conditions of retirement homes and convalescent hospitals that this author had in his conception of retirement homes. They have gone along way since those times thankfully and many a good facility exist like the on his mother is choosing to go to. It sounds so good in fact that I would want to live there with her… I appreciate the honesty he felt when he described the fear of loosing his father’s family farm and old phone number. When my parents retired 2 years ago I also lost that old phone number that they had for 35 years and felt a loss of security. My first thought was how will people I knew growing up find me if they really wanted to at all. In the developing nations family units stay together from birth to death and were not relegated to suffering in dillapidated homes of death like what used to be the norm in America. This article shows a step in the right direction towards aging gracefully…

    • Re: ” This article shows a step in the right direction towards aging gracefully…”

      I’m 69 and my social security retirement check is $530 a month. I spent my youth looking for answers and living in Hare Krishna communities. Never developed a career. Nor a fund for old age.

      Try to reconcile your concept of “aging gracefully” with $530 a month. Better still, offer the institution with the glass walls running through the woods $530 a month and they won’t even let you use their restroom facilities.

      The reason old age and death is so hidden from view on western culture is because it is an embarassment to the lie of conventional cultural values. We are all pretending that we are doing great, living in denial that we are on mother nature’s production line heading towards the recycle department.

      Then again, there seems to be an aspect of the materially-oriented mind that just can’t “get it” that we are all aging and that putting our energy into temporal contexts that simply can’t endure is living in a fools paradise.

      At 69, I live in the woods. I bathe in the stream in front of my house. I still do my daily yoga asanas, and 16 push-ups (one for every name in the maha mantra). I cut my firewood with a chainsaw and split the cuts by hand. Old age is coming on. I’m in the home stretch. Another 10 years? 5?

      Anyone who thinks that one of those modern $5000 a month old age homes with glass walls will protect them from samsara is mistaken. Just another smoke screen that says we’re all doing great.

      Time to sober up. The only good thing about this world is that we have the chance to get Krishna conscious Everything else is intoxication. Fools paradise.

  3. This is one of the reasons why I love being in nature. In nature, the whole life cycle is on display, which serves as a constant reminder of what we were, what we are, and what we will become. When you walk through the woods, you find seedlings, big mature trees, dead trees, dead leaves, animals in all phases of life, and the like.

    In the city, everything is artificially maintained at the “height” of it’s life cycle: old trees and shrubbery are uprooted and replaced not with seedlings but with freshly matured trees that have been farmed hundreds of miles away and transported in on trucks; old cars are discarded for the latest models; many humans undergo cosmetic procedures to erase any evidence of old age (and hide in exile when such efforts are no longer fruitful); and even pets are euthanized at old age because their owners do not want to give them the additional care that comes with old age. Even some of my social network connections use profile pictures of themselves when they were younger. People maintain themselves in illusion by hiding any evidence of the life cycle (aging).

    This story makes me think of a Catholic chapel built in medieval times that features walls filled with skeletons and skulls of monks and priests who have passed away. In front of the skeletons stands a sign that reads “We once sat as you sit now, and you will one day sit as we sit now.”

  4. Very nice article. Old age became something people are ashamed of. Maybe not everywhere, there are still some nations that seem to have different approach. But generally any symptoms of aging are not welcome any more. People inject poison into their skin to prevent wrinkles, put different cosmetics, go through surgeries, dye their hair, pull out not so good looking teeth to replace them with shining white artificial ones. People who don`t follow this trend are looked down upon. Whole modern speed of life with constantly changing technology is totally not old people friendly.

    Yet one thought- we tend to idealize old times and Eastern cultures. Yes, in old times most old people stayed with their families. But some of them would prefer to be somewhere else. There was abuse but no law to deal with it. I`ve read several books describing suffering of old people in times gone by and I think moving to retirement home seems like going to heaven in comparison.

    And East is not any better. Holy dhams are full of people who live there because they have no other choice. And it is not modern day thing- Rabindranath Tagore wrote about the same problem.

    Therefore i think retirement homes are good invention. Plus people don`t have very big families anymore. And taking care of seriously disabled person is not one person`s task.

    • Brajasundari Prabhu,

      Hare Krishna! Please accept my humble obeisances. I really like your writing. I like your insightful observations. When I shared time with you at Madhuvan, so often I would see your broad smile and the rolling of your eyes in response to the affaires of the day. Your writing gives me more of an appreciation for the thoughts and feelings behind that pleasant face. Please keep writing.

      Your tiny godbrother. (Lord Caitanya says that anyone who can talk the truth is guru.)

  5. One thought that comes to mind is that no one really believes the title of this article. Even within our community of devotees.

    The standard of sane comprehension is that everyone should be living thier lives as if each day was their last. If one knew that he/she would have to leave that body in the next 24 hours – how would they conduct their affaires?

    The Absolute truth is that any day can be our last. But we simply can’t get a grip on that – and go on with our plan-making. We are told that no matter how nice we arrange things in this world, no one can keep it. But still we think about making nice arrangements.

    We are told that according to karma, no one can suffer more or enjoy less than we are destined to, and that therefore making these plans to optimize our situations are an illusory persuit. And that the best use, therefore, of our percious time, is to simply cultivate our spirituality. But still, we continue making plans.

    Madhvendra Puri was not looking for food, but Krishna brought him some milk. Good thing he wasn’t locked up in one of those glass coridors – he might have missed out on that milk.

  6. If we are thinking we can change people’s karma (their suffering and enjoyment) by putting them in glass houses when they are aging, that is an illusion. This is our philosophy. Ghandi also thought like this. But freedom from imperialism does not change individual karma. Therefore he was a materialist. The real protection from, nay, the only protection from suffering is to re-awaken our dormant Krishna consciousness. That can be done in a glass house. But a glass house without such a program……

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