Recent research findings reveal that current and future generations of humans will likely live longer. It comes with the caveat that these extra years might not be our most productive because of developing health issues.
These findings provoke mixed feelings. On the one hand, it sounds great to have more time. On the other, if entangled in a web of health problems, is it worth prolonging life?
Before venturing to discuss the pros and cons of having more time on the planet, it is helpful to elucidate that these research-based findings do not guarantee that we will live longer or what health problems we will face during the later years of our lives.
The findings offer a snapshot of existing reality and extrapolate it onto the future so that policymakers can find actionable solutions.
Around the world, particularly in the West, there is a growing aging population coupled with declining birth rates. There are calls for new policies to address this.
Looking at this raises many questions, so let’s play a game of: what if? What if older people’s lives extend longer and longer? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
Some might argue that an extension of life for the elderly creates an unnecessary burden on society, mainly if it entails health issues. Many believe that healthcare services will deteriorate - consumed by geriatrics.
Productive adults become obligated to care for an ever-increasing number of older relatives instead of participating freely in society, funding the economy and nurturing the young. The quality of life experienced by the elderly might diminish due to their health problems, leading to increasing calls for euthanasia.
I understand that these arguments are pragmatic and plausible. However, my view is that we have a moral duty to alleviate the suffering of the elderly and provide them with opportunities to assimilate into society. The basis of my argument is emotional and might be considered weak by rationalists. But, if we structure society merely around pragmatic and rational consideration without resorting to emotional and moral ones, we will lose the core of our humanity.
The elderly have suffered under the weight of the pandemic. Extended periods of isolation coupled with their high vulnerability to contracting the virus ostracized them from meaningful participation within society. The elderly’s feebleness that they naturally experience due to their age sanctifies their position as unwanted outcasts who, once becoming useless, are now discarded and shielded till the grim reaper harbors their soul.
When the value of human beings hinges on the transactional exchange between an individual and their surroundings, we must ask ourselves about the level of decay that we've reached.
Valuing the elderly isn’t merely an ethical imperative; it’s a Divine decree. All world religions compel us to care and be kind to the old who once cared for us and deserve to age with dignity and love. The Quran commands that when one’s parents become old that “If either or both of them attain old age with you, do not say: “Fie on you,” nor rebuke them, but speak to them with words of respect.” The Bible commanded, “Rise in the presence of the aged and honor the elderly face-to-face.”
The pandemic changed many preconceived notions, chief of which is the relationship between productivity and physical presence. During lockdowns, we barricaded ourselves indoors to shield ourselves from disease, but technology allowed us to remain productive.
We don’t need to ostracize the elderly due to their health issues as we once did during the lockdown. Offering actionable solutions that cater to their specific needs while encouraging them to participate in society actively requires a change of perception regarding disease and old age. We can learn from the paradigm shift that we were forced into due to lockdown and use technology to mitigate the health problems suffered by the more aging population while capitalizing on their experiences.
Of course, some diseases are harder to manage and impact a person’s ability to perform, but having a health problem shouldn’t be used as a license to shun a large portion of a population or stigmatize them as unproductive. We need to understand both productivity and disease in multifaceted ways to appropriately respond to what the future might hold for us personally and collectively.