What if the age at which we die is not determined by our health or happiness, but by those who deem us surplus to requirements and a burden on the state? Venetia Sherson ponders an unnerving prospect.
In US author Lionel Shriver’s well-reviewed novel, Should We Stay Or Should We Go, a middle-aged married couple makes a pact to end their own lives when they turn 80. A nurse and a GP in the British National Health Service, Kay and Cyril Wilkinson have seen countless patients worn down by physical and mental decay. They are determined to avoid the same fate. Reluctant to be a burden on the state or their kids, they make a pact: when Kate turns 80, they will jointly take their own lives. At 50, that still seems a long way off.
But when Kate blows out her candles on her 80th birthday cake, things don’t seem so clear cut. The pair are still physically and mentally alert and living active lives. What might they miss out on if they snuff it? The novel cleverly devises options including being sectioned by their children, experimenting with cryogenics, and living in a fancy rest home.
Most of us, from time to time, consider how life will pan out in old age. The death of a parent can prompt speculation about our own demise. Will we live to the same age? Will we face the same impairments: loss of hearing, sight, mobility, or mind? Mostly it’s not maudlin; just curiosity. And we are heartened by science and statistics. There are cures for many of the conditions that struck down our parents and new drugs to mitigate or stave off the extreme effects of other ailments. New Zealand now has the fourth-longest life expectancy in the world after Monaco, Japan and Australia.
As a Pākehā New Zealand woman, I can expect to live to 84.57 years. My husband, at 80, is nearing the national average for Pākehā men. Statistics for Māori and Pasifika, of course, are nowhere near as rosy. While life expectancy is increasing for both populations, the gap persists. Māori men’s life expectancy at birth is 73.4 years, Māori women 77.1; Pasifika men can expect to live to 75.4, Pasifika women 79. But here’s a thought: what if the age at which we die is not determined by our health or happiness, but by those who deem us surplus to requirements and a burden on the state?
Unthinkable? Read on.
Japan has the highest proportion of elderly in the world. Nearly a third of its 124.77 million people are aged over 65. Traditionally, those citizens have been placed at the top of the social hierarchy. Grandparents are revered, taken in by their families when they can no longer live independently. Age has traditionally been considered a blessing not a burden. But the declining birth rate – nearly half that of 40 years ago – is causing headaches for taxpayers and the government. The prime minister, Fumio Kishida, warned earlier this year the ageing population and falling birth rate posed “an urgent risk to society”. The country, he said, was “on the verge of losing its social functions”.
Against this backdrop, Japanese film-maker Chie Hayakawa has come up with a solution. In her film Plan 75, she posits voluntary euthanasia for the over 75s. Thus, instead of being an ongoing economic cost to their country, Japanese septuagenarians can choose to slip away quietly (at a spa for those with means or on a camp bed in a darkened room for those without) while the state puts them to sleep. For their selfless action, they receive $US1,000 to spend on a farewell bash or bequeath to their next of kin.
While only cinematic at this stage, the proposal has caused some online commentators to speculate it could be the answer to a very real problem. Hayakawa herself admits it is too real to be sci-fi. In an interview she said, “A state-sanctioned solution like Plan 75 is far from impossible in a country that is growing ever more intolerant to socially weak people: the elderly, the disabled and people who have no money.” She also referenced the shooting in 2016 of 19 disabled people by a man who later described his motives as “vitalisation of the world economy”, arguing economic value was more important than human lives. Plan 75 opens with a mass shooting at a rest home reported as the latest in an epidemic of violence targeted at older people.
As a person who turned 75 this year, I should be unnerved. My economic output is far less than in my 50s and will undoubtedly diminish further. Based on my mother’s genes, I could reach 90. In defence, my labour does allow the parents of my grandchildren to be gainfully employed or take a well-earned break; my writing, I hope, brings some pleasure to some people; and my pension helps sustain my local grocer, dry cleaner, gym, cinema, news sites, and cafes. I keep myself fit by walking so as not to be a burden on the overburdened health system. I have my vaccinations when asked to for the same reasons. Thus far, the attitude towards me remains friendly and engaging, not dismissive or aggrieved. (Although there is a tendency by checkout operators to call me “dear” in a childlike way.)
How easy would it be to change benevolence to malevolence? Not that hard if history has taught us anything. I am old enough to remember the 1970s when, during a period of high unemployment, working mothers were targeted for taking jobs from men. In case we forget, pensioners are also beneficiaries, “bludgers” in some people’s books. “OK, boomer” has become a meme used by the young to mock the attitudes and perceived perks of those born in the two decades after the second world war. During Covid, when rest home residents were deemed high risk, I had a heated discussion with a middle-aged businessman who claimed his livelihood was at risk because of restrictions, “when those dying are old anyway”.
A report released in Britain in 2020 worryingly found older people were mostly seen as “incompetent, hostile or a burden on society”. Published by the Centre for Ageing Better, it said negative attitudes – “largely driven by media” – represented ageing as a crisis or a societal burden, with the ageing population described using metaphors such as “grey tsunami”, “demographic cliff” and “demographic timebomb”. It noted that older people were often depicted as “villains”. The head of one organisation caring for the elderly urged people to challenge the stereotypes, adding, “Classifying people in later life as a burden is an ultimate insult and particularly concerning in the current climate.”
Others point out that the stereotypes are not based on fact. Today far more people are working beyond retirement age than any previous generation. Statistics New Zealand figures show more than a quarter of the 800,000-plus people eligible for superannuation still work compared to 9% 35 years ago. One in five expects to work into their 70s. Others help sustain essential public services with volunteering work. In the UK, Captain Tom Moore was nearing 100 when he walked 100 lengths of his garden in 2020 to raise nearly £33 million ($NZ65 million) for the National Health Service during Covid lockdowns.
Creative folk, particularly, continue to deliver well into their dotage. Some of my favourite authors (Margaret Atwood, 83, Joyce Carol Oates, 84, Alice Munro, 91, Edna O’Brien, 92) and actors (Judi Dench, 88, Ian McKellen, 83, Anthony Hopkins, 85, Michael Cain, 90, Clint Eastwood, 92) still delight. Paul McCartney, 80, performs albeit with less vocal scope; Willy Nelson, 90, live-streamed benefit concerts during the pandemic. On a lighter note, Rupert Murdoch, 92, would have saved himself millions in divorce pay-outs and lawsuits if he had gone gently into the night more than three decades ago; Donald Trump, 76, would not be running for president again; King Charles III (74) would hardly have time to warm the throne before his time was up.
Film-maker Hayakawa has said her movie is not dystopian but, rather, a wake-up call, motivated by anger and anxiety that, “in a capitalist society, economic value is prized above all else, including human life”. While the euthanasia scheme in the film is voluntary, she says the pressure on the characters to take up the offer is real, based on the Japanese concept of self-responsibility and shame in needing welfare and not being a bother to their family. The premise is not far-fetched. The elderly already have the highest global suicide rate of any demographic.
But, for those spooked by the idea of a state-mandated lifetime limit, there is hope. In one scenario, a young employee of Plan 75 realises one applicant is his uncle, a man he dearly loves. Getting rid of a bunch of oldies may be a grand economic theory; getting rid of Granny or Grandad may be harder.