In an article entitled, Endings: A Sociology of Death and Dying, Michael Kearl discusses the statistics behind death. I was shocked to find that the rate of suicide among men aged 85 and older is 155% higher than of the age group aged 15-24. I found this extraordinarily telling of elderly citizens opinions toward death and wondered if the recent increase parallels the development of life sustaining technology. Are these statistics telling us something about American’s desire to die in control? Do they reflect a failing system of geriatric care? Or does it reveal something more profound about the dwindling quality of life as one ages?
In August of this year, renowned neurologist, researcher and writer Oliver Sacks passed away after being diagnosed with cancer. Upon learning the diagnosis he published an article in the New York Times entitled, My Own Life, where he reflected on his accomplishments and philosophized about the end of his life. He compared his thoughts on death to those of philosopher David Hume who wrote, “It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present.” Sacks elaborated on Hume’s idea stating, “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive…” He goes on to detail the life events that brought him joy and reflect on what he has yet to accomplish. Months later, he composed another statement that was published in the Times where he concluded, “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
In light of the courage and genuine contentedness of Sack’s words, I found it difficult then, to understand why elderly suicide statistics are exceedingly high. What could foster such a drastic difference of attitude towards one’s death? Is there a biological explanation why some people desire death to the point of suicide while others publish articles on their deathbed asserting they are not yet finished with life? Could this be an effect of education, economics or religion? Investigating attitudes towards death would educate society about this oftentimes-taboo topic and hopefully allow us to view our own lives as the “enormous privilege and adventure” that Oliver Sacks did.