The scene of my last visit with my grandfather several weeks before his passing will be imprinted in my memory for as long as I am fortunate to live. He was 92 years old, and my brother, Jonathan, and I were sitting by his bedside in his small apartment in Lakewood, New Jersey. As usual, our conversation covered a breadth of topics including literature, history, politics, and law. Even in his frail state, my brother and I were riveted by his insight and were embraced by his camaraderie. Suspecting that this may be our last goodbye, we left his presence with a heavy heart.
Although his passing was hard on us, I remember feeling a sense of thanksgiving during his funeral for the insurmountable blessing he was in my life. Growing up, my Zaidy, as we called him in the family, was a constant source of wisdom and counsel. During innumerable phone conversations and visits, I was able to seek his guidance for a variety of life's challenges from mundane social issues to more consequential discussions about careers, the future, and the intersection of spirituality and well-being to name a few. He even had some clever dating advice that serves my marriage till this day. The lessons learned from him in his old age had a profound impact on whom I became as a spouse, father, teacher, and therapist.
I am glad and relived my grandfather did not follow the advice of Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, director of Clinical Bioethics at the NIH and brother of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who in a recent article titled "Why I Hope to Die at 75" suggested that living beyond 75 is pointless. His main argument was that "by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us." He continued to note that "the average age at which Nobel Prize-winning physicists make their discovery -- not get the prize -- is 48." Dr. Emanuel pointed out that the increases in life expectancy experienced in recent years does not correlate with an increase in quality of life, and hence older adults become a burden to the life and memories of their children. He concluded his bewildering piece by declaring that due to his death wish he does not plan on taking much care of his medical conditions after 75.
Beyond the sentimental value of my experience with my grandfather in highlighting the tenuous theses of Dr. Emanuel, the field of developmental psychology would question the underlying spirit of his entire approach. According to famed developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994), as individuals enter their middle age, an age range that Dr. Emanuel is in the thick of, they are faced with the task of developing a sense of generativity, which includes developing a sense of personal accomplishment and now wanting to impart good on future generations. One way in which this is accomplished is via relationships with children and grandchildren and possessing a sense of wanting to contribute to their personal growth during the remainder of life.
However, not everyone achieves this significance goal. If an individual at mid-age overly emphasizes personal achievement and longs for the days when they were vigorous and productive they may develop a sense of stagnation; they get stuck in wanting to continue to produce as they did in their younger years only to be disappointed and frustrated. A healthy resolution of this stage requires moving beyond placing a premium on "creativity, originality, and productivity" and replacing it with a desire to impart our accumulated wisdom to the next generations. Erikson further suggests that stagnation during mid-life results in moving on to the final stage of life with a sense of despair, entailing feeling of bitterness about the life lived. True. If you believe that life is all about "creativity, originality, and productivity," you are likely to want to end it by 75.
Thankfully my grandfather emerged from middle adulthood with a sense of generativity reaching old age feeling a sense of integrity and fulfillment about the entire life lived. The only way my grandfather was able to serve such a crucial role in my life, a role that is still impacting me to this day, was because of his efforts at living into his 90s. When my grandfather was 75 I was in middle school. Although I enjoyed his company then, my appreciation for his wisdom and his ability to truly impact my life only materialized once I hit latter adolescence and early adulthood. It was during this time when he was nearing ninety, not in the best of physical conditions and way beyond his prime, that our conversations truly changed my life.
Dr. Emanuel, for the sake of your grandchildren, please reconsider having that colonoscopy at 70.