Pass the Baton: Just Like All The Others



How might you feel watching a flashback of your life when you’re close the finish line? 

At age 102 Alice Parker an accomplished chorus line dancer during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s and 40s viewed film of herself that she had never seen before.

This poignant video with over 11 millions views offers a profound  reflection of her fleeting life. On April 6, 2016, Ms. Parker quietly passed away. She was in good spirits and at peace.

A recent research study entitled, “Death and the Oldest Old: Attitudes and Preferences for End-of-Life Care” published in the April 2016 journal Plaus One. Data on 54  participants aged 95-101 studied views on end-of-life care and attitudes of the ‘oldest old’ towards dying.

Of 54 study participants alive when the survey began, 6 died before they could be interviewed. Of the 48 remaining, 44 took part in the survey.  Considering trends in longevity and significant increases in global aging populations, the research is timely and relevant.

Results of the study are insightful albeit not surprising. Simply stated, participants view death as part of life.  Researchers determined that many of the old people wanted to discuss death and end-of-life care but seldom did.  Very old people mainly live day-to-day and most were ready to die. Many had concerns about quality of life, being a nuisance, having nothing to live for and having lived long enough.

Researchers noted with interest that study participants welcomed interviews as an opportunity to have dialogue and express their thoughts about death. They also found that questions about certain topics were helpful in initiating a dialogue about dying.

It was also noted that family members and caregiver professionals alike admitted to being hesitant to broach the subject of death, which at times left the older person with unaddressed concerns, or a need for more information.  Many of the verbatim quotes from study participants were as touching as telling:

  • “I’m ready to go. I just say I’m the lady in waiting…waiting to go.”
  • ‘Please don’t let me live ‘til I’m a hundred.
  • Interviewer: “But if you think of your life as a journey, how do you feel about being at the particular spot where you are now in the journey?”   Participant: Oh dear, that’s difficult. Well, I would say just over three-quarters of the way through.”     
  • Interviewer: “Would you say that you enjoy your life?”  Participant: “I’m past it.”
  • Interviewer: How are you today? Participant: [laughs] Lousy as usual…I wish I wasn’t here.

Most of the very old people in the study were not at all worried about death itself but rather more concerned with the dying process and the impact their deaths might have on those left. Their common wish was for a pain-free and peaceful death. There was little or no future planning by the participants.  Uncertainty often hampered end-of-life planning even when death was near.

There are several important takeaways for me from this study.  First, people who live to be very old are emboldened, perhaps even nonchalant, in accepting inescapable realities of death. These folks are grateful for their lives yet are quite willingly to acknowledge that the end is near.  Notwithstanding clear and progressive thinking of the oldest old, many stigmas about death and dying continue to exist. These traditional attitudes impede thoughtful and constructive dialogue necessary to achieve healthy outcomes for the living and dying.

Generally speaking, our society seems to shun discussions of dying.  The subject is awkwardly spoken about if at all. In some ways, the discomfort people have discussing death reminds me of how some parents handle the subject of sex when their kids reach puberty.  I wonder why two natural human events make for such stilted and stiff conversation? Why are there so many taboos?  Since the natural order of death comes as no surprise, particularly among the ‘oldest old’, why are so many people uncomfortable talking about death?

“Fidel Castro says he’s going to die!”

Fidel Castro sits as he clasps hands with his brother, Cuban President Raul Castro CREDIT: CUBADEBATE/AP
Fidel Castro sits as he clasps hands with his brother, Cuban President Raul Castro CREDIT: CUBADEBATE/AP

Did you see these shocking new headlines blasted around the world that revealed the stunning news of Castro’s death announcement?  During what was likely to be his last speech to Cuba’s Congress, the former president announced that he would soon die but the ideals of the Cuban revolution would live on.

“I’ll be 90 years old soon,” he said. “Soon I’ll be like all the others.”            Indeed, a simple statement of obvious fact. The 89 year-old  has been ill since the early 2000’s when his brother Raul took office. Castro’s matter-of-fact message was that the time was coming for a younger generation to take over.  No reason for shock and awe.  We simply watched an old man on death’s doorstep pass the baton.

Perhaps its time to reexamine outdated  paradigms, attitudes and cultural practices that shun discussions on death and dying. One truth is undeniable.  Death is part of life. We will each pass the baton one day.  Just like all the others.

DEATH is the end of all life in the individual or the thing; if physical, the crumbling of the body into dust from whence it came. He who lives not uprightly, dies completely in the crumbling of the physical body, but he who lives well, transforms himself from that which is mortal, to immortal ~Marcus Garvey

I am not going to die, I’m going home like a shooting star.             ~Sojourner Truth




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