Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Is Death Optional?

An old joke speaks to how we in the U.S. think about death:
In India, death is seen as a potential step away from reincarnation and towards Nirvana. In Europe, death is seen as an existential tragedy we all must face. In the U.S., death is seen as optional.
Daniel Callahan, author of "Taming the Beloved Beast: How Medical Technology Costs are Destroying our Health Care System," and Sherwin Nuland, author of "How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter," (both have written many other books as well) have taken on the American myth of eternal youth in a recent issue of the New Republic. They argue that "the war against death as the highest priority should give way to a new goal: aiming to bring everyone’s life expectancy up to an average age of 80 years (already being approached), reducing early death, and shifting the emphasis in the direction of improving the quality of life of those in every age group. The highest priority should be given to children, the next highest to those in their adult years (the age group responsible for managing society), and the lowest to those over 80."

This is the kind of discussion we need to have in the U.S. in place of the vacuous tit-for-tat between Republicans and Democrats over who loves Medicare the best and who is out to destroy it. Medicare is an amazing achievement for a society in which many, perhaps a majority, agree with President Reagan that "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem." Medicare is cherished by its over 65 beneficiaries and by the generation concerned about care for their parents. Medicare's popularity is so deep that it's been known as the "third rail" of American politics since the Clinton presidency. Touch it and you're dead!

Callahan and Nuland can argue for giving priority to children and younger adults because they're both 80. The ordinarily lethal accusation of being "granny bashers" is hard to pin on grandparents themselves. I'd guess that in a forced choice, a majority of Medicare recipients would agree with Callahan and Nuland.

Medicare costs must be brought into line with general inflation. But we won't make progress until our political leaders develop more backbone, and that won't happen until they hear from Medicare constituents themselves. I think the right starting point for that advocacy process is for those of us in the Medicare age group (and that includes me) to demand that Medicare focus more on interventions that promote quality of life and less on costly hi-tech interventions that may forestall death by prolonging deterioration and suffering.

As Callahan and Nuland note in their article, this will require a heightened political and medical awareness among Medicare recipients, and will engender economic losses for those who currently profit from the way health care is provided.

In addition to the New Republic article cited above, the July 3 New York Times featured a letter on the topic from Dan Callahan along with several responses. Among the letters, Doris Fenig writes "We are a very strong lobby. We have a very loud voice. Let’s use it...for 'common civic sense.'" She's got it right!

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