Vamshidhar Kommineni

November 26, 2006

Frontline: Living Old

Filed under: Miscellany — Vamshi @ 2:31 am

Frontline did a great piece recently called Living Old. The program is still available online in it’s entirety in case you want to watch it or if any of the issues below touches a nerve with you. The program isn’t strong on facts or possible solutions as some of Frontline’s programs are, but it does force you to think about a set of issues that most of us have to deal with at some point. Some of the things the program talks about are:

  • ~20 % (~70 million) of the people in the US will be over the age of 65 by 2030. In 2000 that number was ~35 million
  • The number of trained geriatricians in the US is woefully small
  • Care is very expensive and going to get more expensive. An example they gave was of a physician whose children could not care for him who pays about $150,000/yr for 24/7 care
  • More than 60% of people older than 85 go to a nursing home
  • People forced to deal with their own mortality as they grow older (A touching scene of an old man with lung cancer where he cannot be operated on because of his age and has to measure his days)
  • Decisions faced by children as they struggle with making choices for their parents over years and years
  • The moral debate about giving people the choice to cease treatment and die vs prolonging life regardless of the cost to quality of living

I think this is a very important debate for all of us that have to deal with the inevitability of aging parents and some day with our own frailty. The parents issue is complicated for everyone who leads the kind of crazy lives we do and can’t take the time to care for their parents for years. Particularly for people like me who live more than 9000 miles away from home, this is a difficult and scary future to contemplate. A simple thing like visiting them regularly is not straightforward.

Even the issue of something like nursing home care isn’t cut and dry. Most families can’t afford to look after their elderly parents full time, yet the guilt of abandoning your parents to an institution is a difficult cross to bear. I’d like to think today that this is an easy choice for me to make and that I would gladly take my parents in if they ever wanted to live with me. However, this is viewed through the current prism of my life when I don’t actually have to make that decision. Thankfully, my parents are still relatively young and in good health (heck, they’re more active and in better health than I am :).

Separate to the parental issue is the one of what you would chose to do if you were ever in a state where you were so afflicted with frailty and dementia that you were completely dependent on somebody else for care. There are polar extremes to this choice which are expressed in the program ranging from not wanting to live at the point at which you cease being yourself (in some sense) to always wanting to live, no matter what and cherishing the gift of life. Once again, this is a hard issue to debate because it is too easy to reach a conclusion when you’re not facing the situation. I’ve long said that I wouldn’t want to prolong my life in this manner even if I were to reach that state at an earlier age due to injury or illness. But can I really stick to that if the circumstances were to transpire?

I would suggest watching the program, and to think about the issues that you face in this regard;I know it forced me to (of course I’m directing this at my audience of 0 :). Here are some links that are available on the PBS site as well:

Frontline programReport from the President’s council on Bioethics (long, but good)

What are we going to do with Dad? (If you’re only going to read one article, read this one)

Lingering longer, who will care?

Longer lives reveal the ties that bind us

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