“Hope I die before I get old!” sang Roger Daltrey of the Who
in the song “My Generation”. But he didn’t die. He turned seventy in 2014. And
I’m sure he was glad to get there. Even if he was serious back in the 1960s,
the older he got the more his views must have changed. He’s never stopped
enjoying life and he probably wants to enjoy it for many years to come.
Perhaps he now hopes to live past a hundred. Many people do.
Lots more of us are reaching that milestone. But not everyone wants to reach a
great old age. Some researchers at Columbia University have recently completed
a fascinating study into how long people want to live. They interviewed people
by telephone, asking them about their present age, their race, their sex, their
level of education, how happy they were and what they felt about old age.
They could then see how this information related to another
question: How long did the interviewees want to live? Some said they wanted to
live to their eighties, which is average life expectancy in the Western world.
Others wanted to live longer – much longer in some cases. But some wanted to
die relatively early, before they reached the average life expectancy.
What explained these differences? The sex of the
interviewees and their level of education didn’t seem to matter very much. Race
was more important: Black Americans were most likely to want to live a very
long time – past their hundredth birthday. Conversely, people who weren’t very
satisfied with life didn’t always want to live a long time. But when happiness
was taken into account, one important factor seems to have been what the
interviewees felt about old age. That is, what experiences had they had with
If they’d seen their grandparents or parents suffering illness
or struggling to cope with increasing age, they had negative ideas about old
age and were less likely to want a long life. On the other hand, if they’d seen
their grandparents and parents continuing to enjoy life, they had positive
ideas about old age and were more likely to want a long life for themselves.
The study concluded that two fears are in competition.
People are afraid of dying, but are also afraid of getting old and frail. Which
fear is stronger? That question determines how long we want to live. Of course,
not many people commit suicide while they’re young just to escape old age. But
many people do seem to have a death-wish. They live dangerously, taking
unnecessary risks or eating, drinking and smoking to excess. In some cases,
they may be doing that because they want to leave the world early, even if they
don’t realize it themselves.
Old age can be a difficult time, of course, but it’s not
just life expectancy that’s rising. So is the quality of life for the old.
Modern medicine and modern technology can ease many of the traditional burdens
of age. So can modern ideas like funeral plans. In the past, many old people
worried a lot about their funerals and how to pay for them. They had to save
but sometimes they had to use those savings for other things, like paying for
doctor’s help when they got ill.
Today a funeral plan means that you can save money even as
funeral prices keep on rising. You choose the kind of funeral you want, then
pay a fixed sum and leave everything in the hands of the funeral-plan provider.
No matter how long it is before you need to activate the plan, there won’t be
any more charges. So you haven’t just arranged your funeral in good time and at
your own pace: you’ve also found peace of mind in a fast-changing world.