Death is an interesting topic. It offers an amazing insight into the value of life and generates important philosophy into meaning and rights.
But we can easily forget that in our world death is no longer an event, but a process. Medicinal progress has evolved our well-being and life expectancy to unimaginable levels in the past century alone. That means we can expect people to live longer than ever before.
However, it also means we experience the decline of life more than ever. While the common death used to be sudden and quick, we live so long that we now see a decline in our physical and mental capabilities until we reach a point where our entire body gives out. We don’t experience death as an event because the sudden, external influences are no longer affecting us in the same way. It is a process today borne from us reaching our natural limitations and chronic, meandering diseases becoming the predominant source of death.
Atul Gawande describes this change of death in what is likely the most detailed account I’ve ever laid my eyes on. Being a surgeon himself, he recognizes the shift medicine has caused but also the lagging value system prescribed to doctors to take care of their patients and in our society to take care of the elderly. I bought this book to hopefully remind me of my mortality and motivate me to do more. But it showed me something deeper: the mortality of those around me and what little attention is headed their way.
Gawande starts by looking at the role of death in family and how the treatment of elderly has changed vastly. While in older times, houses were filled with multi-generational families, in most of the western world we have shifted to a separate households. Gawande attributes this shift to the value of independence after entirety of wealth, such as land, was no longer tied to one name until death. But now we have to face the reality that not everyone can be independent at a certain age. And Gawande provides a deep analysis on retirement homes and how their function often conflicts with what we would believe to be their purpose.
He then talks about a flawed view in the medical world that looks at fixing problems in the body. Doctors prescribe the best treatments they can to elongate our life. But what about those problems that are unfixable? The problem that, no matter what we do, there will be an end. That some diseases are terminal. That old age will eventually come. In those times, perhaps focusing on the quantity of their life’s end is not worth possibly degrading the quality of it. Instead of being in a hospital to their death, perhaps they want to spend time with their family. Instead of living on a bed constantly having surgeries or treatment, maybe they want to enjoy their last days outside with fresh air. We’ve taken the same approach of curing ailments to the majority and apply it to incurable problems as well. And it comes at a cost.
I think Being Mortal is a book everyone should read, though perhaps not as urgently as others. It is simply a book that makes you reflect on the inevitable times that will arise with loved ones in their dying days. And most of all, Gawande provides a journey and what he believes to be answers to this unspoken dilemma.
If you’d like to check out the book, you can find it through my affiliate link here. Let me know what you think through my social media above. I’ve never believed more how it is just as important to discuss how we are treating our elderly as it is to talk about how we treat our youth.