‘Tiredness of life’: As scientists race to lengthen lifespans, more elderly itch for an early dismissal

Molly was 88 years old and in good health. She had outlived two husbands, her siblings, most of her friends and her only son.

“I don’t have any meaningful relationships left, dear,” she told me. “They’ve all died. And you know what? Underneath it all, I want to leave this world too.” Leaning a little closer, as though she was telling me a secret, she continued: “Shall I tell you what I am? I’m strong. I can admit to myself and to you that there’s nothing left for me here. I’m more than ready to leave when it’s my time. In fact, it can’t come quickly enough.

I’ve interviewed many older people for research. Every so often, I’m struck by the sincerity with which some people feel that their life is completed. They seem tired of being alive.

I’m a member of of the European Understanding Tiredness of Life in Older People Research Network, a group of geriatricians, psychiatrists, social scientists, psychologists and death scholars. We want to better understand the phenomenon and unpick what is unique about it. The network is also working on advice for politicians and healthcare practices, as well as caregiver and patient support.

Professor of care ethics Els van Wijngaarden and colleagues in the Netherlands listened to a group of older people who were not seriously ill, yet felt a yearning to end their lives. The key issues they identified in such people were: aching loneliness, pain associated with not mattering, struggles with self-expression, existential tiredness, and fear of being reduced to a completely dependent state.

This need not be the consequence of a lifetime of suffering, or a response to intolerable physical pain. Tiredness of life also seems to arise in people who consider themselves to have lived fulfilling lives. One man of 92 told the network’s researchers: “You have no effect on anything. The ship sets sail and everyone has a job, but you just sail along. I am cargo to them. That’s not easy. That’s not me. Humiliation is too strong a word, but it is bordering on it. I simply feel ignored, completely marginalized.”

Another man said: “Look at the condition of those old ladies in the building opposite. Gaunt and half-dead, pointlessly driven around in a wheelchair … It has nothing to do with being human anymore. It is a stage of life I simply don’t want to go through.”

A unique suffering

The American novelist Philip Roth wrote that “old age is not a battle, old age is a massacre”. If we live long enough, we can lose our identity, physical capabilities, partner, friends and careers.

For some people, this elicits a deep-rooted sense that life has been stripped of meaning – and that the tools we need to rebuild a sense of purpose are irretrievable.

Care professor Helena Larsson and colleagues in Sweden have written about a gradual “turning out of the lights” in old age. They argue that people steadily let go of life, until they reach a point where they are ready to turn off the outside world. Larsson’s team raises the question of whether this might be inevitable for us all.

Sad, grieving widowed man
(© deagreez – stock.adobe.com)

Of course, this sort of suffering shares characteristics (it’s depressing and painful) with anguish we encounter at other points in life. But it’s not the same. Consider the existential suffering that might arise from a terminal illness or recent divorce. In these examples, part of the suffering is connected to the fact that there is more of life’s voyage to make – but that the rest of the journey feels uncertain and no longer looks the way we fantasised it would.

This sort of suffering is often tied to mourning a future we feel we should have had, or fearing a future we are uncertain about. One of the distinctions in tiredness of life is that there is no desire for, or mourning of, a future; only a profound sense that the journey is over, yet drags on painfully and indefinitely.

The global view

In countries where euthanasia and assisted suicide are legal, doctors and researchers are debating whether tiredness of life meets the threshold for the sort of unceasing emotional suffering that grants people the right to euthanasia.

The fact that this problem is common enough for researchers to debate it may suggest that modern life has shut older people out of western society. Perhaps elders are no longer revered for their wisdom and experience. But it’s not inevitable. In Japan, age is seen as a spring or rebirth after a busy period of working and raising children. One study found older adults in Japan showed higher scores on personal growth compared with midlife adults, whereas the opposite age pattern was found in the US.

Surgeon and medical professor Atul Gawande argues that in western societies, medicine has created the ideal conditions for transforming aging into a “long, slow fade.” He believes quality of life has been overlooked as we channel our resources towards biological survival. This is unprecedented in history. Tiredness of life may be evidence of the cost.The Conversation

Article written by Sam Carr, Reader in Education with Psychology and Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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    1. Thanks, I thought I was strange or crazy. But your article describes everything I’m feeling& feeling. I think I’ve been letting go a little at a time for decades! And I think it’s a natural part of ageing.and the way the poor & elderly! You just know there is nothing good to look forward too. My dog is the only thing that gets me up& out💕

    2. The end of our lives should be and could be a thing of interest, with peace replacing active career pursuits . Instead many face a lonely miserable if not cruel time. We’re for the most part ignored so it’ll be wise to shape your end of days as they may become years in some cases by doing & thinking things that bring you as much peace as humanly possible. Your wisdom may be your best friend.

      1. I love your comment. We live in a society where production is valued. I believe that everyone is born valuable, regardless of what they are able to offer society. So, I also acknowledge that there is immense value in older individuals. They have the wisdom that you speak of. They look at life and recognize what is valuable. We need this perspective so much. It is sad that so many don’t feel valued. We need to do better as a society in creating platforms where the elderly can contribute.

  1. I’m 67. been retired for years. health is declining but i feel good. loved ones are gone, i prefer to be alone to dealing with people. if i’m dying, i don’t want any extraordinary actions to be taken to keep me alive. let me go. i’ll be happy.

    bring me back, i’ll hunt you down.

    1. My thoughts exactly…however when they bury me…I hope they bury me upside down so the world as we know it can kiss my arz…jus sayin

  2. Here’s an ace that you can keep. You’ve got to know when to hold them; know when to fold them.
    The best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.

    1. I’m 74 in good health. My husband has been gone for years. Most of my family are gone, but I found a handsome 45 year old man. I live for what’s between his legs. I’ve never had such a wonderful size. It keeps me going every day.

      1. Becka, I’m 85, and now watching the younger ladies doing what you do with 45 young males. I see today what was taboo in the 50’s, and enjoy the lewdness I could never enjoy in 60 years. Wife passed on last year and now enjoy what a transformation the 70’s brought out. I would love to enjoy time with the younger freedom offers. I may be old , but dreams offer a new hope on meeting the younger willful spirit I could encompass the aging pain I ponder with age differences.

    2. This should scare the hell out of you: Eventually the drug doesn’t abate the urge to go. Maybe wait a day and try again. But after many days, there is no hope, even in the simple pleasure of cannabis, no hope left to kill. What does a person do in THAT condition? I go.

      1. Call on the Lord Jesus Christ and ask for his presense in your life – you will be surprised to find him alive and in your spirit. Without my faith, I would not have liked to live at various points in my life but since becoming a Christian the supernatural element in my life is marvellous and better than any drug! True peace and joy and fellowship with other Christians.

    3. This is just an attempt to inject this kind of euthanasia conversation into society a la 1930’s Germany. It’s manipulation folks.

  3. It isn’t just the really old; I’m 64 and I’m tired of life, too. I’m not ill or anything like that, but my dreams have died, so I have nothing to live for. I tried religion, but the inability of Christianity to live up to its billing nearly drove me into suicide four times, so I quit. (Feeling better now.)

    1. We still need you around Karen, I know you are important to someone. You are young to be feeling this way. If you may live another 20 years it’s not acceptable for you to go through life that long feeling such feelings. Have you tried finding a good therapist to help you with this? Perhaps too antidepressants could help you. I’m sensing a lack of connection with others is at the root of your feelings so could you find a cause you feel passionately about and volunteer your time once a week? Join a club or sports league? People won’t come to you if they don’t know your there you must go to them. Do it for yourself Karen. Your post made me very sad and i don’t want you to feel this way. As far as religion I would focus not on the other people and how insincere they can be in the church – it’s true that people anywhere will always let you down if you let them and nobody is perfect. But maybe focus more on building a relationship with God if you believe in the Christian tenants (I do) and let him lead you as you do your best to follow his tenents. I wish you luck Karen. Don’t give in to these feelings of moroseness now, it’s not your time to go yet. Embrace that you have a body healthy enough to walk and see and experience and begin doing things just for the pleasure of it alone.

    2. Dear Karen. Religion is not the answer, and neither is Christianity. The answer is JESUS! Establish a personal relationship with JESUS and enjoy your life. I’m a 75 year old 100% disabled Vietnam Veteran. I’m still recovering from a stroke that I had a year ago and I’m still living my life with my Faith in Jesus! Check out CBN.COM and Andrew Wommack Ministries. He’s an excellent Bible Teacher. You have nothing to lose, except the blues! I hope you will check out these references and take your time. God Bless You!

  4. ..as long as an individual is healthy, and has some activities (mental/physical) to keep occupied, life should be lived as long as possible…! Of course, we outgrow/outlive relatives, friends, spouses, but this is the LAW of NATURE…..nothing that you can do about it! There are clubs, television/radio, to keep everyone occupied and another way to think about the aging process, is that this is the ONLY life that YOU have, so live as long as you can. As William Pitt once said, ” Let me do good unto others, as we pass this way ONLY once!”

  5. Years ago, Newsweek magazine featured a story where they documented everyone in the United States that had died in one week of gunshots. There was a photo of most of them with a small blurb about why they had been shot. There were a fair number of murders and accidents but the dominant cause of death by gunshot was suicide with the majority of the suicides being performed by the elderly often jointly with their spouses. Due to illness or disease or loss of independence, the elderly were shooting themselves by themselves with no assistance necessary. A gun is an inferior way to kill oneself. I advise any contemplating elder suicide to consider other painless, reliable, portable, inexpensive, clean and odorless options. Be careful. Don’t traumatize the living. Jack Kevorkian showed the way. Unless you’re completely immobile, you shouldn’t require assistance. Make sure someone finds your body fast. Leave more than one message to more than one person or agency. But also, please take a last trip, enjoy a last meal, swim a last swim, dance a last dance, etc. Write a great letter goodbye.

    1. I went on the darknet to read “The Suicide Handbook.” It discusses, at length, 99 ways to do the job. One of the key points is, “Who will find you, and what will they find?”

    2. Something you must understand: When you’re ready to go, there is no last meal to enjoy, no ability to perform a last dance, no means to take that last trip, nor swim that last swim. That’s why you go.

    3. I too am ready to go. Looking forward to heaven. Do notwant to commit suicide due to the pain I would cause. I’ve had a wonderful adventurous life, love my family, just feel I’ve overstayed.

  6. Great article and something I’ve known for a long time. Big pharma with its greedy fingers and the entire medical community with its endless expensive procedures/tests need to stop keeping the elderly alive for profit. Let people die according to God’s Will and stop with the power you have no right to have. More needs to be done about this for the sake of us all!

  7. “In countries where euthanasia and assisted suicide are legal, doctors and researchers are debating whether tiredness of life meets the threshold for the sort of unceasing emotional suffering that grants people the right to euthanasia.”

    I got a terminal illness, or so it seemed, and a divorce, the divorce was real. Now, my kids are grown, they despise their mother, and I have a 2nd lease on life through organ transplant. However, I am keenly aware that my time will come. If I have to ask permission, I’m checking myself out. I won’t ask.

  8. I have the impression from this article that the elderly are not valuable. There was no discussion of others in society stepping up and helping to make their lives meaningful. What happened to community? How about we make an effort to assist the elderly. When is the last time you invited an elder over for dinner or met for a cup of coffee? To busy? Maybe that is the real problem.

    1. The people you now have time for, currently don’t have time for you. It’s not a question of value.
      It’s a question of them doing what you did so they can enjoy doing what you are doing now.
      Think Harry Chapin and “Cat’s in the Cradle”.

  9. When your trip is finished and the life and load (Cargo) is all done what else is there? More pain against a Medical System determined to enforce no narcotics and so on? Its just not worth it. YOU don’t matter.

    Death will be a passage when its time. And hooray what a day that will be to leave this old world behind. You will not find me in a nursing home or any situation where I cannot deal with myself as my body rots. You will not be able to tell me what i can and especially cannot do. If life is just being kept in a box and liberty reduced to a bed and there is no power to do anything? Im already dead while alive at that point by a society determined to keep me alive. I am especially not a cash cow.

    In my life as a trucker, people have died, Ive been killed but its not yet my time thankfully. Ive had so many things that was done in life my way most of the time. I enjoyed it. Kept the Nation rolling.

    There will be a day when the world is finished. That will be the day I decide this. Not the world.

  10. Just as your entire outlook changes when you reach other stages of life, it does when you get old. Probably a hormone thing. If that can’t be changed there’s little benefit in going on. Science better look into it.

  11. It’s true that western countries show no respect to our elderly and its to our own detrement. I’m a 34 year old American and I love older people, we could learn much from them and they deserve our respect. I hope this changes in the future but sadly I’m not sure that it will

  12. This is a very slippery slope. Bill Gates and the rest of the world depopulation supporters at the WEF will take this and encourage it until they can make it mandatory to implement The outspoken communist George Bernard Shaw even said

    “We should all be obliged to appear before a board every five years and justify our existence…on pain of liquidation”.

    While I agree on one level that we should be allowed to return the gift of life back to our creator, we must also keep in mind that it is by his will that we grow old. It really is a privilege that many do not get to experience. Additionally, suicide is one of the few mortal sins that the bible addresses directly.

  13. Great article! Thank you for confirming my feelings on this subject. I, too, would like to go out on my own terms. No extraordinary means of keeping my head above the ground. Yes, one gets tired of life especially in this present state of existence. The cruelty and insensitivity of human beings is unbearable. It’s a mad world with no respect for life. Young and old alike are routinely mugged, beaten, or murdered! This is not a way of living I want to be held captive in, and it’s insidious. My friend recently did it his way and he showed me how to die with dignity. The medical community should take heed on this study. It’s a powerful acknowledgment.

  14. I’m surprised that the author doesn’t mention spiritual beliefs as a possible factor in a person being “ready to go.” Even if one personally has no belief in an afterlife, it would be foolish not to accept that a fairy large portion of humanity does. A sincere belief that this life is not all there is would be reason enough for one to be so willing to relinquish it.

  15. They did not interview Japanese people.
    Many are in their hundreds and still working!
    They are still enjoying life including riding bicycles!
    The Japanese have a very different philosophy and outlook than the West.
    They enjoy every day fully with friends and picnics and they are always involved in the community.

  16. I’m 78 years of age and I’m ready to move on to be with my Savior and Lord. I happen to believe what I have read in the bible about what the future holds for those who have believed that God has given us the gift of Salvation through his son Jesus who paid the penalty for our sins. Of course, it’s not my call. God may want me to stay here longer for some reason that he will reveal to me and I am eager to obey. But I am looking forward to finishing up here. I believe I passed the test of this life and desire to pass on to the glory God has waiting for me on the other side. I like to quote C.S. Lewis. “The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

  17. To all those offering advice and platitudes, if you haven’t been there, you don’t know what you are talking about.
    I have worked on 5 continents, lived in a dozen countries, created world beating products, and my mind is still as creative and active as ever. I have had two heart attacks, pulmonary embolism (that was a doozy) and a stroke, yet recovered from all of them. I walk 3 miles a day to stop my legs and feet from turning purple and dying. I take no medication (or vaccines) and am as healthy as can be.
    To what purpose?
    Nobody will give a damn whether I continue or not (with one exception) and sitting reading the internet watching the world descend into stupidity and barbarism, or looking out a window and watching the leaves form, fall off, form again is hardly the existence I imagined I would lead.
    Had my wife not wished to continue her existence, although equally aimless, I would have ended it 5 years ago. She does not want to live without me and I do not want to let her down after 56 years of (mostly) happy marriage. She stood by me through the upheavals of living with a “Sigma” male and I will stand by her until she is ready to move on to the next “Great Adventure”.

    ‘To die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly. Death of one’s own free choice, death at the proper time, with a clear head and with joyfulness, consummated in the midst of children and witnesses: so that an actual leave-taking is possible while he who is leaving is still there.’
    Twilight of the Idols.

    “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
    Hunter S. Thompson
    Viking prayer: “Lo, there do I see my father. Lo, there do I see my mother and my sisters and my brothers. Lo, there do I see the line of my people back to the beginning. Lo, they do call to me. They bid me take my place among them in the halls of Valhalla where the brave may live forever.”
    Ave Imperator, morituri te salutant

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