2011 Annual SOARS Lecture

Personal Views on Life, Old Age, Death and other Mysteries

Virginia Ironside
Author and journalist

Among the observations made by Virginia Ironside were the following:

“A discussion of death is perhaps the most important topic in the world – which makes it so odd that so many people avoid it…..The only reason I can think of, for this, is that so many are afraid of it. Why? – when from the moment we are born, we know we are going to die…..I think this fear of death comes from the religious idea that life is a gift from God and that it would be rude to throw it away. But, life is only worth living if it is worth living: and, for many people, life is not worth living, particularly if they become so ill that they are unable to function at all.

“If I ever say, while chatting to someone, ‘I must do this before I die…’ they usually butt in and say ‘Oh don’t say that…you’ve got lots of time left!’ Total rubbish. I’ve got far less future than I have a past, and I’m delighted. It means I have fewer options open to me, and I can cut out all the rubbish, refuse unwelcome invitations, walk out of boring films. Being young is like being in a huge supermarket, mind bamboozled by all that choice. Being old is like going to the village shop.

“I see death as something rather wonderful to look forward to. I see it like coming home. I see it as a merciful relief from all life’s anxieties and troubles…..It is going to happen to all of us. So why not welcome it and accept it rather than dread it?

“When old people ring up and say, tearfully: ‘Oh crikey, I’ve been told I’ve only got a few months to live,’ I tend to think, ‘Well, what do you expect at your age, dearie? I don’t imagine you were expecting to live for ever.’

“Us oldies have had years and years to get used to the idea of death. We shouldn’t be so weedy about it, we shouldn’t dread it. We should set a good example to the young, and teach them, too, to welcome death, when life gets too wretched or, even, when it’s clear that we’ve spent quite enough time at the party and our hosts are starting to yawn and look at the clock. We’ve got to move on – otherwise we’ll be parents of children who are bent and bald.

“Even Freud said, in a letter he wrote to a friend in 1936: ‘I still cannot get used to the grief and afflictions of old age, and I look forward with longing to the journey into the void.’

“They say that old age isn’t too bad when you consider the alternative. But what is the alternative? Everlasting life? No thanks. Nowhere is the desire to live long seen so clearly as in Miami, a city also known as ‘God’s Waiting Room.’ It’s rather like Hove, with gangsters…..Certainly many in Miami look fantastically old. You see alarmingly pulled-backed face-lifty faces atop crinkled bent old figures, all out of kilter…..In my hotel lobby, there was a book for sale called ‘Secrets of Longevity: 100 tips on how to live to 100’. Heaven preserve me.

“To be fair, most people I know do say they’re not frightened of death so much as frightened of dying. And, none of us wants to enter a strange half-life of pain, blindness, deafness, the loss of our faculties and, often, a complete change of personality…..That is no life for anyone.

“So when some argue about keeping people alive, come what may, I feel like saying: ‘For heaven’s sake, what’s the big deal?’ I’ve already lived far longer than most people were expected to live a hundred years ago. Now, I feel I live on borrowed time.

“It’s not good for our children if we hang around too long. I certainly didn’t even begin to feel like a grown-up until both my parents had popped off…..I have friends of 75 who are still looking after a bonkers old parent, still staggering off to the nursing home to sit by the bedside of a wheezing semi-corpse which doesn’t even recognize them…I have friends whose lives are dominated by their elderly parents…..How will young people ever have a chance to develop if they’re forever shadowed by our ailing, brooding presences?…..Baroness Warnock said that she would far rather die than be put into a nursing home and spend large sums of money which could be better used by her children. My thoughts exactly.

“And, if you think that I’m being creepy, apparently 70% of us welcome the idea of assisted suicide when we get too old, or too ill to enjoy life any more.

“And, finally – famous last words. Yes, you can start dreaming them up right now. Here are some hints – ‘Another sunny day! Thank God I don’t have to go out and enjoy it!’ Or – ‘I long to be nothing and nowhere, and that will be such a relief: to be something and somewhere is very tiring.”

During the subsequent discussion – with SOARS supporters, FATE members, and their guests – the following points were made:

“Death” should be openly discussed, in honest terms: expressions such as “passed away” should never be used. And, worst of all, it should never be said that someone has “lost” his wife or her husband!

In many ways, “Life” is a rather ridiculous situation – homo sapiens is apparently alone in this universe, based on Earth, which is a tiny speck in a vast cosmos, travelling through outer space at nineteen miles a second.

Furthermore, homo sapiens is a recent (accidental?) arrival on Earth – if one’s arm represents the age of Earth (about 4.5 billion years), then the presence of homo sapiens is equivalent to one shaving off a fingernail.

How someone copes with death may be largely influenced by what that person actually thinks survives when death occurs. A poll of the audience revealed that 8% believed that a “soul” continued to exist; 12% felt that there is a non-specific “life force” which energizes all living creatures; 65% felt that nothing survives death (except one’s descendants, writings, photographs, and friends’ memories); and, finally, 15% (perhaps the most honest?) were uncertain what survives when someone dies.

Finally, everyone was reminded of the basic rationale for the existence of SOARS when a 2002 statement from the European Court of Human Rights was quoted – “In an era of growing medical sophistication, combined with longer life expectancies, many people are concerned that they should not be forced to linger on in old age or in states of advanced physical or mental decrepitude which conflict with strongly held ideas of self and personal identity”.