This piece of writing started out as a story, at least that's the way I initially thought about it. The story would be about three people - a couple and a widow - who share a table in an independent living facility for seniors. The widow is ninety-eight years old. She comes to the table one evening with the complaint that her son wants her to sell her car. Despite the facts that her short term memory barely exists, her hearing and eyesight are reduced, and her reflexes are slow, she claims that she is a safe driver.
My sympathy for this elderly person slowly evaporated, and with it went my desire to write the story. But something else happened; I realized that I had the basis for an essay on the problem of aging when you are constantly confronted by your diminishment, or as Hamlet says, “The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”
In the May 20th, 1919 issue of the New Yorker magazine, there was an article written by Adam Gopnik, an author whose work I respect, on the possibility of people living hundreds of years. The author indicated the scientists already have the necessary knowledge to turn the possibility into a reality. In fact, the author clearly stated that death would be eliminated. I must admit that I was horrified by the idea of living eternally or even living a few hundred years more. At ninety, I know that I’m not far away from my demise, and though there are times when I suddenly become conscious of that fact, I am not cowered by it.
The problem of living a long life is precisely that, a problem that usually consists of many issues wrapped around the core of a body whose internal systems are in the process of degenerating.
Where my wife and I live, an ambulance is summoned there almost every day, sometimes three and four times a day. People are removed for all sorts of medical reasons, some never return. The second floor of the facility houses Alzheimer residents, and those who suffer from dementia. Their sense of reality has totally collapsed. They are alive, but they are also, in a way, dead.
The place where we live is denoted an “independent living facility for seniors.” It offers little to stimulate the residents other than card games, bingo, and films that have two showings: one in the afternoon, the other in the evening. Walk into the lobby where there are two alcoves, and you will find almost every chair occupied by a sleeping resident. To look at the possibility of living two, three, or five hundred years, immediately opens a “Pandora’s Box” of questions such as: will these long-lived persons be productive? If not, who’s going to pay for their maintenance? Do they have the right to die? Will there be enough food for the millions of geriatric individuals and those that are decades if not centuries younger? How will climate change affect the food supply?
The author claims that Homo sapiens are the only species that understands the finality of death. Perhaps this is so. Maybe that's why the belief in an afterlife is so fundamental for tens of millions of people. I am willing to bet that most animals know when they are in danger of dying. Obviously, not in the way we would know it. I saw the expression on my dog’s face, especially in his eyes, when I had to put him down, a euphemism for the words, ‘have him killed’ because at the age of fourteen years he could no longer use his hind legs and he became incontinent.
From the seed of a story about an elderly woman unwilling to recognize her limitations, I burrowed into the possibility on extending lives of human beings hundreds of years and the possible consequence of that becoming a reality. I’ll end this brief essay with the following lines from Macbeth: Life is a poor shadow that struts and frets his hour on the stage; then, is heard no more.
Dr. Greenfield is published in Amarillo Bay, Runaway Parade, Writing For Tomorrow, Stone Hobo, Prime Mincer, THE STONE CANOE, electronic edition, The Raven's Perch, among others. He is cited in Wikipedia. He and his wife live on Staten Island. He has been a sailor, soldier, college professor, playwright, and novelist.