The presentation on March 17, by PBS-TV's "Frontline" series of a feature titled "Living Old," raises profound and disturbing questions. Increasingly in America, improved medical treatment and technology has led to the situation where more and more people are living into what we used to consider late old age, only to die slowly from general deterioration and disabilities for which there seems no cure. This in turn is producing a health care crisis—one so severe that there almost seems no way out except to drastically re-evaluate what life itself is all about.
At one point in the not too far distant past, most people thought of this life as a prelude to a better life beyond. One grew old, confident in the belief that what extra burdens old age brought could serve as a kind of crucible that prepared the soul for a heavenly life in the world to come. But what one sees today in our increasingly crowded nursing homes — those 85 or older who are not able to leave them after six months of convalescence will almost certainly spend the rest of their lives there — are people so debilitated by their chronic illnesses and by such diseases such as late stage Altzheimers and other conditions so severe that one begins to doubt that anything that might be called a "soul" still exists in what is left. Where once one could contemplate death in terms not too different from thinking about one's retirement, the loss of faith and thus any hope for anything better, has largely disappeared.
It is no wonder then that movements have arisen to legalize assisted suicide in various forms and that laws have been passed in several states that permit such to take place. Dr. Jack Kevorkian seems to have been only been a bit ahead of his time. Even euthanasia, where others other than the patient (if he or she is totally incapacitated) are allowed to decide a person's fate is surely not far behind. We have come close already to the point where the decisions concerning our loved ones in such circumstances have become not much different than those concerning our pets. Little more seems possible than to mercifully "put them to sleep."
Nevertheless, our human sensibilities recoil from such a conclusion. Evolution has given human nature an insatiable drive for life. Without that thirst, indeed, not just to have life but even, as the Good Book says, to have "life more abundantly," our species, compared to those better equipped to survive solely on instinct rather than thinking, probably would have died out long ago. So it now seems that what at first appears to been a medical breakthrough due to human brain power has now become not just a medical and social crisis, but a true crisis of faith.
R W Kropf 3/18/09 Living Old.doc 09-03-18.html