Should Everyone Get an Instadeath Pill When They Turn 75?

How Americans could do better with end-of-life decisions.

My father is a mathematician. He’s brilliant in ways I cannot hope to fathom. And when he gets together with his math buddies for dinner, as he did a week ago yesterday, unusual subjects tend to come up. Metaphors such as “the derivative of the happiness index” are employed; cheers of “secant, tangent, cosine, sin, 3.14159” have been known to break out. But this dinner last week—at which I was lucky enough to be present—featured one of my new favorite mathy bon mots: the notion of QTR, or “quality time remaining,” in one’s life.

My father turned 70 years old last week. In the Middle Ages, such longevity was basically unheard of. In the ’20s and ’30s, 70 was still pretty old. Today, it’s considered the outer rim of senior citizenry—practically the new 50. My dad is living proof; a very vital dude, he bikes 30 miles in a morning, skis double-black diamonds in Utah, and recently drove across the country with my mother in a diesel Roadtrek RS camper van. He revels in the senior discount he gets at the movies, but he delights even more in the astonished looks of the teenage ticket clerks, who regularly ask him for identification, marveling, “You don’t look 65.” “I’m not,” Dad always responds, grinning.

In 1920, my father’s probable QTR would have been somewhere in the neighborhood of five years. These days … who knows? A recent article in New York magazine cited a staggering statistic: There are almost six million Americans living today over the age of 85. By 2050, the article states, almost five percent of the population, 19 million people, will be 15 years older than my dad is now.

But the article, a personal narrative by Michael Wolff, isn’t called “Yay, We’re All Gonna Live to Be 100, Aren’t You Relieved?” It’s called “A Life Worth Ending,” and its central thesis is basically this: “By promoting longevity and technologically inhibiting death, we have created a new biological status held by an ever-growing part of the nation, a no-exit state that persists longer and longer, one that is nearly as remote from life as death …”

When I read that, my breath caught a little in my chest, held there by the memory of a woman who was practically my grandmother lying small and withered in a hospital bed in California and saying over and over, in a voice I barely recognized as her own, “Help help, help help. Help help, help help.”

And I thought about QTR. And I started to panic.

The will to live is well-near biologically indestructible. We will survive, our genes scream. We will not go gently into that good night, we will rage, rage. And, if the modern medical establishment has anything to say about it, in the process of raging, our genetically coded determination will leave us bereft of mental capacity and control over our most basic functions; leave us to wither in the dying of the light.

Should human existence ever get to that stage (and it does in our country, with alarming regularity; Michael Wolff says, “Seventy percent of those older than 80 have a chronic disability, according to one study; 53 percent in this group have at least one severe disability; and 36 percent have moderate to severe cognitive impairments), then QTR no longer applies. That kind of half-life sounds instead like the result of the creed of MQTR: Maximum Quantity Time Remaining. Which is, admittedly, the American way: Our incessant demand for the largest possible amount of everything—food, house square-footage—necessitates the sacrifice of substance, self-awareness and yes, quality.

So how are we, denizens of this Costco country, so determined to maximize size at the expense of everything else, supposed to learn the lessons of Wolff’s article, and understand when the time has come to exit gracefully before it’s too late?

When I asked my boss lady here at the mag for her take on the conundrum, she told me what her father had told her: “Everyone should be issued a pill when they turn 75 that they can take whenever they want to.” I guess I quite agree. But you have to wonder, would anybody ever want to? How, frankly, is any human being supposed to give up the basic animal drive to keep on trucking no matter what? And how are that human being’s loved ones and friends supposed to trust, understand and let them go?

My father has a blog. It was originally meant as a chronicle of his and my mother’s cross-country road trip, but from the get-go he’s been very self-aware about the temptation a blog presents to proselytize. (Like father like daughter.) Anyhow, his very first post contains an impassioned and well-reasoned argument for atheism, among other things, within which is contained this insight: “I’ve often remarked on how common it is for lucky people to fail to properly credit their good fortune. Instead, they delude themselves into thinking that they’re exceptionally astute decision makers, or that they have brilliantly foreseen whatever lucky event that came their way, or that they are incredibly talented in some (or many) ways, or whatever. You get the idea. I think this is symptomatic of a general human failing: fear of randomness. We don’t like the idea that the world is a random place, but it most certainly is.”

I know, I’m biased, but I love this idea of acknowledging randomness, of living with chaos. Death is terrifying because it can happen so fast, because it strikes with such a seemingly blind hand. In the face of such seeming uncertainty, we so often choose to prolong our status quo as long as possible; in Michael Wolff’s case, to keep his mother hovering in non-conscious, near-misery half-aliveness for months, years. But if we could all accept the relative flux of existence, the lucky happenstances that brought us to where we are in this world, maybe we wouldn’t be so loathe to leave it when the time is right, when luck is with us still. Maybe our lives could last and pass with some measure of ease.