An advertising campaign once encouraged us to “just say no” to drugs. And while some people are magnificent at staving off their “exit, stage left” until supreme old age, so far no one has been able to “just say no” to the inevitable “d” word: death. It happens to the best of us and the rest of us. Even George Burns, who made movies well into his nineties, departed not long after celebrating his centenary in 1996. Amusingly, one of his last films was 18 Again!, a comedy inspired by the country tune, “I Wish I Was 18 Again.” In the film, Burns (92 at the time) plays an 81-year-old self-made millionaire who switches bodies with his awkward eighteen-year-old grandson.
There is humor in everything, including death and dying, if we are fearless enough to perceive it. For example: the closing lines to the poem Crystal Moment are:
Life and death upon one tether
And running beautiful together.
The author of this luminous piece? Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Robert P.T. Coffin.
We’ve discussed The Conversation, a starter kit to help families initiate talking about last wishes with their loved ones, and more recently, Roz Chast’s humor-laced memoir about her parents’ aging and deaths in Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
But we haven’t yet explored an even more challenging topic: how to discuss end-of-life issues with a senior who believes that death is a full stop: no soul, no potential afterlife, just a screeching halt into nothingness. It’s easy to see how such a perspective could contribute to a fear of dying, especially since science has yet to validate what mystics and people who’ve had NDEs (near-death experiences) report.
Now, the Boomer generation is broadening the death discussion. A new film, Death Makes Life Possible, features some of the leading scientists, anthropologists, philosophers and spiritual leaders of our time, including physician and author Deepak Chopra, Grace Cathedral minister and labyrinth creator Lauren Artress, Agape founder Michael Bernard Beckwith, psychologist Dean Radin, biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake, and Harvard professor of neurology Rudolph Tanzi. The film explores how we can learn to live without fear of our mortality. Interviews and evidence are interwoven with personal stories of people who are facing imminent departure, as well as those who report encounters beyond death.
Einstein put death in a grander context when he observed, “Matter is energy. Energy is light. We are all light beings.” The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change form. Coupling these two scientific truths, we might infer that when we shed the body, we become pure light — energy in a lighter form.
Death, it seems, has its time and place. What might be crucial for reverse mortgage professionals to understand is how prevalent death before its time can be for an older population. Lonely, isolated seniors aged 65 to 84 are nearly twice as likely to commit suicide as 15-24 year olds. Beyond age 85, the risk is 70% higher. And seniors are six times more likely than teens to succeed in the attempt, because they’re less ambivalent about their decision and have greater access to lethal means.
Fortunately, for more than forty years the Institute of Aging’s Friendship Line has been a lifeline, making and receiving over 100,000 calls a year to depressed, disabled, or isolated adults. Some seniors call the Friendship Line every day; talking with the trained, compassionate listeners enables them to feel they still have a reason to wake up in the morning. Even if someone has the resources to continue to maintain their lifestyle thanks to a HECM, without a feeling of connection they may decide it’s easier to die.
The more we know about how to approach death — and how to avert it prematurely — the more light we can shed on the “D” word, perhaps even with some humor.