October 23, 2014

Prolonging life will only make death the least of our worries in an ageing society

Posted in Irish Independent · 51 comments ·

My father passed away five years ago at the decent age of 79. With the passing of time, it becomes easier for me to consider the last years of his life.

Like many people, he was healthy up to a number of years before he died, but overnight his quality of life plummeted dreadfully.

At seventy-five, this fit man who was a daily walker (of 5 to 10 miles), suffered a heart attack and underwent an emergency triple bypass, which we hoped would lead to a reasonably rapid recovery. I looked forward to being able to walk with him again on Killiney Hill or the nearby beach, which were our favourite walks in South Dublin.

It didn’t work out that way.

Complications associated with an acute disease, diabetes, ensured his final years were not years of joy, surrounded by family and grandchildren – the type of old age we all imagine we will enjoy.

His were years of ill-health, faltering recoveries, incapacity and ultimately pain, due to poor blood circulation induced by diabetes.

As getting old is inevitable and happens quicker than we think, looking back at the end of my own Dad’s life has prompted me to look forward to the end of mine.

What will it be like? What sort of society will we live in by the time I reach my ripe old age?

How many other oldies like myself will be knocking around? Will I be in slippers, beside the fire, chatting to grandchildren, surrounded by loving family or will I be alone?

Will I be rotund, corpulent and content or will I be raging against time, trying to run marathons, looking like a hyperactive raisin in Lycra cycling like a demon up the Sally Gap in Co Wicklow, trying to prove something?

These are considerations which all of us will face in our own way at some stage in our lives.

In the past, the need to reflect on these issues was not so acute because lots of us more or less ‘dropped dead’. My grandfather dropped dead at 50-odd, when my father was 15. That was the way it was.

But this is no longer so likely as the demographics of our society change dramatically in the 21st century.

The medical difference between my father’s time and his father’s was that in my grandfather’s lifetime – the 50 years from 1900 to 1950 – life expectancy increased dramatically.

Vaccines, antibiotics and better medical care saved children from premature death and effectively treated infections. This was the case all over the western world. Once cured, people who had been sick largely returned to their normal, healthy lives without disabilities.

In my father’s adult lifetime, since the mid 1950s, increases in longevity have been achieved mainly by extending the lives of people over 60.

In 1961, there were 315,000 people aged 65 or over in the Republic of Ireland. At the 2011 census, there were 535,393, an increase of 70pc. This trend of an ever-ageing population continues today.

While the young population (0-14 years) was higher than the old population in 2011 – with 976,600 compared with 531,600 – this trend is set to change drastically in the decades ahead.

The switch-over from young to old is expected to start in 2036. This gap will move ever wider by 2046 when there could be 561,000 more older people than younger people in Ireland.

Even by 2021 (which is only seven years away) the number of elderly people in Ireland will have grown by 200,000 from the 2011 figure.

According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO) projections, based on estimates of fertility and mortality rates, the population could reach 6.4 million by 2046.

The numbers over 65 will reach 1.4 million by 2046. This older group will make up 22pc of the total population, compared with 11.6pc of the population today. I will be one of them.

While the number of children at primary school age will rise by up to 100,300 by 2021, the over-80s population will rise from 128,000 in 2011 to between 470,000 and 484,000 in 2046. In Ireland, by 2046 there could be up to more than half a million older people than younger people.

Male life expectancy has increased from 57.4 years in 1926 to 77.9 years in 2010, a gain of 20.5 years over the 84-year period; while females have seen a gain of 24.8 years – from 57.9 to 82.7.

This stretching out of life will continue as so much of modern medicine is focused on prolonging our time here.

There are all sorts of new genetic advances that will come on the market in the next few years, all of which are aimed at retarding the ageing process.

However, what if we aren’t really slowing the ageing process so much as slowing down the dying process?

And what will be the purpose of that? And at what stage do we say stop?

Typically, economics columns, when discussing the elderly, refer to the financial costs of an ageing population, about pensions and whether enough money has been set aside to provide for the old.

Economics conferences on demography host discussions about whether we should encourage emigration to supplement our falling population.

Yet over the coming years, we will realise that these concerns are the least of our worries.

The consequences of slowing down the dying process will lead to some of the most pressing moral dilemmas faced by our society – where the right to die will become as contentious as the right to life.

  1. EddieN

    I am not sure which is troubling me more… 1. that you have me thinking about dying first thing on a Thursday morning or your obsession with men in lycra…

    Leave us cyclists alone :)


  2. midnightrider

    Agenda 21, Depop….nice

  3. Life Cycle

    Many who have lost their own Dads can understand the moments as described by David and remember their experiences and those final moments and all of it will always seem like yesterday no matter how many years ago it happened.For others they still do not understand .

    Looking into tomorrow will be a new science of living and quiet frankly no one knows yet . Drugs and new discoveries make the aging process the next ‘new item’ everyone wants to be .Rights to life and to death will be the other end of the scale.

    New societal practices will be borrowed from other older cultures and adopted into the maze of our own.

    Buying an expensive home will change too especially for the young .In France the choice of buying an old persons home is easier and free of bank interest by sharing the final years with that person enabling them to live a better lifestyle while empowering the purchaser to pay far less to purchase the house. This is known as ‘Viager’ .

  4. Many years ago after my parents died I adopted a Granny in France and made her lifestyle very pleasant and she empowered me to own her home .She died 5 years ago aged 85 . This is a recognised legal process well known in France .

    Encouraged by this new experience I repeated the same process but this time a granny and grand dad and he died four years ago .This granny is now 88 and I am meeting her tomorrow morning . Its magic the experience I share with her .She is a former opera singer and sang for De Valera on the old RTE radio and holds a certificate for that .She also befriended Picasso and other painters and high society of a bygone era .And the stories still live on in her mind.

    By the way she still drives a car and recently drove 2,200 miles around France over a few weeks.Optimism and dynamism is her lifestyle now .

    • Nice commentary John

      Embrace life with optimism
      Do the best you can
      Adopting an elder is a great idea.
      Wisdom acquired has the opportunity to be handed on.
      Seniors are a great resource respected in many cultures.
      I plan to be 105 and look forward to it.

      Remember an antique car must be run every week to be maintained. Put the proper fuel in the engine and service regularly. It will run for ever.

      Similar for the body. Eat organic quality foods, and stay physically and mentally active. Life is fun.

  5. kinsele2

    Some truths maybe here but so many massive assumptions too. Given on Monday David was saying it’s impossible to really predict how the economy might turn because of how unpredictable we are as a species, today he has predicted the family planning habits of 5 million people for the next 40 years!
    Some concerning points too. If “Economics conferences on demography host discussions about whether we should encourage emigration to supplement our falling population.”, and Ireland is a minute country in the context of the western world, and all western countries are experiencing similar population changes, where do these economics conferences suggest we export our people to? It’s a dangerous and short path from here to talk of population culls.
    If in the first half of the 20th century Ireland was very parochial and largely family based, but because this has changed to be self / financially focused in the second half of the century, who’s to say this won’t merge to somewhere between the two in the next 50 years? Mental health issues deriving from loneliness, competitiveness etc are massively on the rise in post-industrial countries, so my hope is it won’t take long until we realise we need each other far more than we need a fifth bedroom noone will ever sleep in that might actually lead us to that heart attack.
    My own father died at 78, and despite health issues which lasted his entire life deriving from TB in his childhood he never surrendered his independence, or relied on anyone to decide for him how his old age might be.
    Rant over, some assumptions of my own: assuming you have some level of mobility and cognition, and the Netherlands and Ireland are still part of the EU by 2046, and conservative Ireland still hasn’t legalised abortion or even considered the question of euthanasia, won’t it be possible just to travel there and quietly do your business?

    • McGoo

      >predicted the family planning habits of 5 million people for the next 40 years.

      The people who will be paying most of the tax in 40 years time, and therefore supporting me in my dotage, have already been born, so it’s not a prediction, it’s just arithmetic. The only unknown is immigration/emigration.

  6. cjmurray

    My mother died earlier this year, less than a year after my father. They both lived to be “a good age”, into their late eighties, in fairly good health, but, as with David’s father, their last few years were very difficult, and I am still distraught at times just at the thought of my father’s incapacitating illness, not to mention his and my mother’s subsequent deaths.

    We tried to do everything we could for them, and to allow them maintain as much independence and dignity in their own home as possible, with our care, with much additional help from the State, and with what could be afforded privately from their own life savings. A door opened up to a different world, one of underpaid, unacknowledged helpers heroically doing very unpleasant work, while some well paid higher up in an office cut their wages and hours further.

    It was an enormous, crippling effort. It ended in failure, and it wasn’t nice, and sometimes, even through the grief, I am relieved (and simultaneously guilty that I am relieved) that it’s all over and I don’t have to worry about them so much any more.

    But I would do it all again, and more. Even at its worst, it was a privilege and an honour to repay something to good, kind loving parents. Although the issue is extremely difficult, and needs to be discussed and dealt with (I’ll be making a living will asap), I would be concerned that, as happened to some extent with some people re my parents, that age and illness, and the cost of it all, is used almost as an excuse to give up too quickly on people.

    I still remember the warning from Willie Birmingham’s ALONE:

    “First you do things with old people. Then you do things for them. Then you do things to them”.

    • jaysus

      Well done CJ, you did well by your parents, no need to feel guilty, no doubt they were proud of you and that they raised you so well.

    • jaysus

      Great article, much to ponder. Reading it on the 2yr anniversary of my own fathers death makes it more poignant. Appreciate the old man while he is alive no matter how grumpy he is, its only when they are gone that you really now what its like to miss someone, time does nothing for that.

      From reading your books David seems like your Dad was a very good father and a very decent man, you now must have made him very proud.
      Here to all the Da’s that have gone and are missed by their sons.

  7. Mike Lucey

    Yes, when our parents pass on we take their place in line for the big exit door. At this time things are quickly put into perspective.

    When I talk about dying to younger guys and tell them that, all going well, I have on average 14 years left in the tank they laugh it off but when I pull out the iPhone, switch to calculator and do their sums the smile often turns to a frown!

    In my case the math looks like, 78 years – 64 year = 14 years x 52 = 728 weeks left! In DMcD case it would looks like, 78 years – 48 year = 30 years x 52 = 1560 weeks left.

    When time is measured in weeks for some reason it becomes very real. We all know that as we get older the week seems to fly by more quickly.

    On the age scale, I think my age group should just about manage to have a reasonable counter balance of young workers on the opposite tray but only just. This balance is definitely going to be very lobe sided in the coming years.

    I have put the idea of leisurely retirement out of my mind. This was more of a case of having to as my pension plan took a huge battering in the financial collapse. I am starting to think it could well be a blessing in disguise as I’m gearing myself to keep working at a reasonable level until I check out if all the bits and pieces keep working reasonably well.

    In order for Western society to manage the imbalance of young v aging a lot of current attitudes will have to change. One change that could be introduced is for phased retirement at reducing wages / salary going from a 40 hour week at 65 to a 20 hour week and then to a 15 hour week at 70 and all the way down to a 10 hour week at 75. After seventy five there should be the option to put his / her feet up and potter around for the remaining 3 years for men and 5 years for women.

    There are loads of ways the 65+ could be very productive, passing on the accumulated experience, knowledge and skill sets to young people particularly. In my case I had many wonderful years with all four of my grand parents. They were far more relaxed and fun to be with than my parents and I learned a lot from them.

    Like the vintage car spoken about above, the 65+ needs to be started at least once a week and given a bit of a run to remain productive contributors to society.

  8. douglaskastle

    Don’t knock the rise of the MAMILs (Middle Aged Men In Lycra). I was chatting to a girl at a wedding recently. She was in her thirties but heavily involved with her local golf club. This is hardly a large sample set, but she said that golf clubs are struggling. The recession didn’t help obviously, but in addition most of their members are old, not a lot of young members. She put it down to the mid-life crisis and the rise of the MAMILs. Traditionally this class of people used to take up golf, now it is cycling. They are spending the same amount of money on all the fancy bike gear (take my word for it none of those bikes have been picked up via the bike to work scheme, think 3-4x that allowance). She partly put this down to the need for health benefits, golf while a nice walk spoiled, it is not really pushing you quite like cycling can.

    I find it all amusing as I was cycling since I was 15 (proper country side long distance cycling) I know the health benefits (well not your knees, why didn’t I warm up more), but now the roads are so much more busy than 20 years ago, Saturday and Sunday mornings can be like rush hour. This healthier lifestyle may cause us to live longer and push us into the realm of living into our 80s and maybe jamming the health system, but we can do a lot better than we have, I remember and still hear of people dropping dead from a heart attack in their 50s, usually because they had a crap life style, less so in the past 10 years, that is a good thing.

    I am in my late 30s, with my first child on the way, I’ll have to live to 80 to have the remote chance of ever knowing my grand kids (fingers crossed on the first one first) I might have been a freak in the 50-70s, not as unusual any more.

  9. sravrannies

    Try 1st child at 48!

    • McGoo

      You have my sympathy. I had my first & only child at 40, now I’m 48 and I really don’t think I could cope with that level of exhaustion again.

  10. Dorothy Jones

    *A descent during air travel is any portion where an aircraft decreases altitude, and is the opposite of an ascent or climb*

    When you travel a lot, you realise immediately when the engine power is adjusted and the angle of the aircraft is changed to ca. 3 degrees angled downward.

    Today is a bright Autumn day and that’s how it seems.


    • Descending in flight is the most difficult part of flying .It is always important that ‘the nose is held up’ when lowering altitude as it bellies down first .I learned this art when flying a light aircraft in and out of Shannon many years ago.

  11. Right to Work in Life

    Today I was in Mc Carthys Pub in Monaco and had a very interesting conversation with a Yorkie who is resident there .I learned that it is impossible to get a job in Monaco .Firstly The Monagasques Authorities ignore ,as do the French, the EU employment laws .Secondly they employ natives first following then the qualified residents and then those in the outside environments and finally normal people have an opportunity.Natives and that means ‘electorates’ always are given the first opportunity in Monaco and France .

    And in Ireland the normal people are the native Irish and somehow are last in all designated areas of the country .

    By the way Mc Carthys Pun in Monaco is owned by a French man.

  12. Well Dorothy, seems like your analogy touches down, gets re-serviced, and takes off for another flight.
    Life is like that with its ups and downs. There are many flights any of which could result in a crash but we all fly anyway.
    Hopefully the final flight is as exhilarating as the first culminating in a gentle tow to the final hanger.

  13. “Will I be rotund, corpulent and content?”

    If I am rotund and corpulent I will not be content. It will be a signal that I have eaten the wrong food and not exercised.

    It is now well known that exercise cures 95% of what ails you.

    Unfortunately a combination of agribusiness and pharmaceuticals are doing us in.
    For instance in the case of using aspartame rather than sugar the result is worse than using sugar. Diet pop or diet anything is bad for your health.
    Low fat is bad for your health. Natural fats are good for you, manufactured fats are not(broadly speaking).

    Whole milk, unpasteurized and natural, is a source of many vitamins and foods and minerals. The processed milk in the store is not. It could be classified as a poison.

    Most corn, peanut and soy is genetically modified, grown with the aid of herbicides that not only are killing you but the soil as well all around the planet. This herbicide enters your body and is passed to the next generation. You are poisoning your offspring!!!


    The Dr Mercola web renderings are a good place to start for information. This is the first place to start to clean up our act.

    A good healthy life depends on keeping the body moving all the time (exercise) and eating uncontaminated, unadulterated food. (organic)

  14. Have you ever wondered how Ireland’s population pre-famine grew to close to 9 million.

    Somewhere I read the statement that the in the early 1800′s the children of Ireland were the healthiest in Europe. This notwithstanding that most were peasant families living 3 generations or more to a cottage while the ruling classes exported all kinds of foodstuffs such as grain and meats.

    It seems that organic potatoes and milk provide just about all that is necessary for a full healthy diet. combined with other vegetable and herbs the population flourished.


    In a modern society Ireland can easily feed 18-20 million people wholesome nutritious food.

    Ban herbicides, take Ireland organic, show the world how to feed themselves. You might not but this legacy would live forever.

  15. J999

    Having read quite a few articles on the subject of life expectancy, mostly written by alternative thinking doctors, scientists and nutritionists, I no longer buy the argument that we are really living longer. In fact I would go so far as to call it propaganda, spun by a medical establishment who feel the need justify expensive procedures and Big Pharma that just want to sell you more pills.

    Yes it is true that average life expectancy has increased dramatically in the last 150 years, but it is not so straight forward. Most of this increase is due to the dramatic improvement in infant mortality. And this increase is mostly due to radical improvements in sanitation and hygiene, though the medical community would like to take all the credit. It seems that once you survive infancy, your maximum lifespan today is really not that much different than an infant born a century ago.

    And while it is true that many medical and surgical interventions have improved things, many of the things being improved really weren’t so relevant in times gone by. For example, they are much better at treating diabetes, heart disease and cancer today than they were a hundred years ago. But these conditions were much more rare back then. Today cancer effects 1 in 3. At the turn of the last century, it was 1 in 16. Many would say that the improvements in treatment on offer today are really only a counter measure to modern diseases brought on by the modern western lifestyle which comprises a good deal of junk food and toxic chemicals.

    To say that male life expectancy was 57 years old in 1926 is somewhat misleading. It would imply that someone who lived to 65 would be considered an anomaly, a rare freak of nature. This just was not the case. It would have been just as common for people to live well into their 80s, 90s and older then as it is now. It is really just about interpreting the statistics in the right way.

    The following is a link to an article entitled ‘Human Lifespans Nearly Constant for 2,000 Years’ http://www.livescience.com/10569-human-lifespans-constant-2-000-years.html . It’s worth a look.

    So for the heck of it, I decided to pick at random a few names that came to mind, of famous people who were prevalent during the early nineteenth century, followed by the eighteenth century, then the classical + renaissance period and finally around about the 2,000 years ago mark. I noted their ages at death. I do not suggest that this exercise is in any way representative of the general population at large. I am merely trying to prove that people who do live well beyond the average life expectancy are by no means outliers. So here goes:

    Thomas Edison (1847 – 1931) aged 84
    Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943) aged 76
    Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) aged 91
    Gandhi (1869 – 1948) – aged 79
    John Turner (1775 – 1851) aged 76
    John Constable (1776 – 1837) aged 61
    William Blake (1757 – 1827) aged 70
    William Shakespeare (1564 – 1827) aged 63
    Nicolas Copernicus (1473 – 1543) aged 70
    Beethoven (1770 – 1827) aged 57
    Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) aged 78
    Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) aged 62
    Socrates (470 BC – 399 BC) aged 71
    Plato (428 BC – 348 BC) aged 80
    Augustus Caesar (44 BC – 14 AD) aged 75

    Now perhaps you might say that this short list is not that random in so far as there are groupings of scientists and philosophers etc. but what can I say. They were plucked from my head and that is the way I think. I dare you to try it yourself. And I do acknowledge there are no women represented. I also haven’t cherry picked either, some of the lifespans reached are not that impressive.

    But apart from that, my point is this: do the lifespans listed here seem that different to what we see around nowadays? Was plato a complete freak, living to 80 over 2,000 years ago? Are we constantly being bombarded by the message that we are living longer, we are living longer? Are we?

    • J999

      Ah silly me. I didn’t mean to include Socrates in that list as he did not die on natural causes, he drank poison.

    • StephenKenny

      There are a lot of demographic measures for life expectancy. I can’t imagine anyone using life expectancy from birth for anything. There are all sorts of reasons, not the least, infant mortality data is famously unreliable, from previous eras. In many societies, children weren’t viewed as being properly human until they reached a certain age. This extends out to all sorts of ‘rights of passage’, in the pre-usefullness, and pre-fertile, years.

      Of course what you say about improvements in sanitation and hygiene are quite right, but it goes much further than you indicate.

      Everyone dies (depending on you religious views), it’s just a matter of when and why. The older we get, the cause of death changes.

      There are many aspects of the past that are enviable, social cohesion, clarity, and so on. But health isn’t one of them. It was horrible. Childbirth without effective pain relief. Dentistry without dentists or effective pain relief.

      What’s interesting is that there is a lot of evidence that prior to the development of farming, life expectancies were much higher, and general health much better.

      It’s a very interesting subject, and pretty much guaranteed to silence a dinner and empty a party – I should know.

  16. Daniel Waxonov

    Q: but where do we ‘go’ when we die ?

    A: back to the same ‘place’ you ‘were’ before you were born

    “I find it helps to see life as being like a book, just as a book is bounded by it’s covers – by beginning and end , so our lives are bounded by birth and death ,and even though a book is limited by beginning and end, it can encompass distant landscapes, exotic figures, fantastic adventures ,and even though a book is limited by beginning and end, the characters within it, know, no, horizons. They only know the moments that make up their story even when the book is closed. And so the characters of a book are not afraid of reaching the last page. Long John Silver is not afraid of you finishing your copy of Treasure Island. And so it should be with us.

    Imagine the book of your life, it’s covers, it’s beginning and end are your birth and your death. You can only know the moments in between, the moments that make up your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what lies outside those covers,whether before your birth ,or after your death, And you needn’t worry how long the book is ,or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic.

    The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.”

  17. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2014-10-20/anti-petrodollar-ceo-french-energy-giant-total-dies-freak-plane-crash-moscow

    Pres of Total went the way of Saddam and Qaddafi after he said Total oil could sell in Euros and not necessarily Petro Dollars.

    If you expect to live to a ripe old age do not diss the Dollar

  18. DB4545

    Makes sense not to diss the dollar so. Do you see oil heading towards $50 a barrel as suggested by some analysts and why would opec allow it to fall to that level?

    • Who knows where oil will go?
      I have seen it reported that the Saudis want to punish the US for not supporting their wish to take out Iran and Syria.
      Saudia Arabia turns to China and releases the oil taps at the time the US fracks its way to oil self sufficiency.
      Fracked oil is reported to cost $85 a barrel to produce so the lower the price is the more these companies lose money and may go out of business. Voila, Us has to Import again and up goes the deficit.

      just talk but who knows

      • Here is where energy costs and oil and gas is going. sh Perhaps the lower oil price is to punish Russia too. But Russia can turn off the tap to Europe and so Germany looks North and not South.

        There used to be an expression in Alberta which was pissed at having to pay taxes to support payments to Quebec via the equalization amendment formula. “Let the Eastern Bastards freeze in the dark!”

        Europe may be subject to similar thoughts emanating from Russia withe Germany trying to decide which side it’s bread is buttered!!

        Lack of energy will shorten your lifespan considerably.


        “The dollar is the true source of American power. (And according to Putin, the number-one thing holding back the Russian economy.)”

        “Putin is working to crush the petrodollar. And he’s bringing China to the fight.”

  19. Another aspect that has to be strongly considered here are dysfunctional health care systems and their massive impact on increasing socioeconomic inequalities.

  20. Will your life end battling an inflationary depression? A rapidly expanding money supply, exponential increasing debt loads with the economy debt saturated and failing. Yes death is the least of my concerns, it is living I am concerned with.


  21. government gets more authoritarian with every excuse. Canada under lockdown??


  22. Posted at Lemetropolecafe.com

    Swiss election

    Hi Bill The only way the Swiss referendum will pass is if the Swiss people insist on paper ballots. Numerous examples abound that the machines are pre -programmed to produce the results desired by the government. Recall Chile in the late 70s early 80s when the government there exposed the CIA;s attempted fraud to overthrow the government via Diebold. The only way anyone in the world can overthrow these criminals is by paper ballots. I am always amazed by the elites protestations that this would delay the results for days or weeks. So What? We wait every 2 years to have an election here. What;s a few more days? Gowinky

    So now all elections are suspect because of electronic balloting!!!??

  23. In Tuam there were 800 babes and children who never had the chance to reach any adult age at all. It is suspected that they were abused and murdered.


    Tortured and raped by pedophiles. Pedophiles in high office in church and state. This is more important than Kilkenomics.

    The common law movement is on the move and expanding. This will be a way to remove the deviant politicians and banksters.

  24. Communism is the antithesis of common law. common law is a freeman’s law with a deep history lost and forgotten by many. communism is slavery wrapped in savory phrases and slogans.

  25. Wills

    IMO age in respect to economy is stuck in the Victorian times.

    What we need is but to context age in respect to leisure not employment.

    Leisure coupled with enterprise a new paradigm.

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