How Long Do You Want to Live?

Barring the Zombie Apocalypse or the actual apocalypse, how long do you want to hang around on this planet consuming oxygen? Have you given your lifespan much thought? I have. I’ve thought about it a lot more on the north side of sixty than I did when I was younger—and even more since the onset of COVID-19.

When I ask people about this (I actually do; I’m like that.), their answers generally fall into one of a few buckets.

Elderly woman
This question will be answered differently by each of us.

Young adults tend to look at me like I’ve suddenly sprouted a wasp from my forehead. They haven’t given the question much, if any, thought. And who could blame them? When I was their age, I just assumed I’d live forever. (I’m still on track for that, by the way.) I still believed I was ten feet tall and bullet-proof.

A few people say, “As long as I can,” a comfortably meaningless phrase. It gives the appearance of answering without commitment or much thought.

The most common response is something like, “as long as I can still do what I want” or “as long as I can be independent.” This answer implies good health, something none of us can guarantee. Most of us never want to become a burden on society or our families. Once you’ve been a parent, letting go of taking care of your kids is hard. And the thought of them taking care of you is horrifying. That horror is led my partners and me to form Hearts Homes and Hands, a state-regulated personal assistance service dedicated to helping people maintain their independence through age, injury, and infirmity. I am already a clients.

Men assisting an elderly
Friends make a long life happier.

I think that fear of dependency is why many elders say something like, “I’m ready to go Home.” Dad used to say, “I’m ready to see your mother again.”

But we’re not really in control of all that. Julius Caesar had a slave whose only job was to whisper in his ear, “You could die today.” As could any of us. But we could also outlive our bodies or, more frightening to me, our minds. We need to plan for both possibilities.

Dad used to tell me, “Plan to live forever and know you won’t.” That’s really good advice. More Americans are now over 100 years old than ever before. We’ve even had to invent a new word, “supercentarians,” for people who are more than 110. One study found that centarians and supercentarians have three common traits, all of which we can start working on today, regardless of age.

First, they are involved with their families and communities. We can all keep up with the kids and grandkids through social media and writing letters, even if we can’t get out. Church is another source of community support, especially if we give support to others before we need it ourselves. Pets also help us build deep ties and reasons to keep going. Someone has got to take care of Fluffy.

Second, they all keep busy. One woman still ran her family ranch at 104. Dad planted corn at 92 while he was dying of cancer. The only thing that worried him when he was in the hospital was how well his crop had done. I know several people who still go into the office every day well into their seventies and eighties. One of my first bosses started a new company when he was 84.

The third commonality is that they want to be alive. The first two traits give them reasons to keep going, but the drive to live is something deeper. It is a passion for life. As singer-songwriter Janis Ian put it, “I’ll go out screaming, ‘It’s mine! Give it back to me!’” I really admire the fight in that answer.

This article also appeared in the June 4, 2020 edition of the Cameron Herald.