So, why the double standard here? Why is it considered good for particular individuals to lead long, vital lives but not for everyone to have the opportunity to do the same? I have never in my life come across an article featuring a centenarian or supercentenarian on his or her birthday that suggests that the specific person in question is somehow "taking up too much space" or that their time on earth is (or should be) drawing to a close; rather, such articles seem to reflect a very positive attitude about the person. This is good! This is exactly the sort of thing that we want to perpetuate -- that is, the celebration of long and interesting lives and the people who live them.
But why can't this attitude manage to carry over into general attitudes toward the elderly? If a person is valuable (which all people are), then why should we not be doing everything possible to assure that they have access to the finest and most appropriate medical care? With the kind of cognitive dissonance one encounters when reading an article about a specific centenarian followed by an article about why it's supposedly bad to support life extension, one might imagine articles with titles like, "Happy Birthday! Now, Drop Dead!" to be commonplace -- thankfully this is not the case. But still, it is rather unnerving to see some supercentenarians apologizing for their own longevity. Tomoji Tanabe, who recently turned 111 (and who is currently the world's oldest male of verifiable age), supposedly said recently:
“I have been around too long,” he joked, “I am sorry.”
Considering that the article linked above began with a statement about "Japan’s welfare system buckling under the demands of an ageing society", one can only hope that Tomoji Tanabe's joke has nothing more ominous than a note of dark humor behind it. The same man stated in another article, "“I don’t want to die,” and I sincerely hope that this statement is taken altogether seriously!
Saying that elderly people are somehow "supposed" to die, or that longevity medicine undermines humanity, is a cop-out -- not to mention an insult to people who are still alive long when most would have already succumbed, and who (uneasily?) joke about possibly having overstayed their welcome while at the same time expressing that no, they are not gung-ho about seizing the grave. Being alive and sentient is about a lot of things. Why must death, specifically age-related death (of all things) be singled out as some sort of cosmically significant defining factor of what it means to be a person? There are so many things in life that one might garner meaning from, after all -- art, beauty, love, friendship, creativity, excitement, learning, awe, wonder, and even the constant and unrelenting struggle to make meanings in a universe that frequently seems to be patently absurd.
To deny the possibility of continued existence to full, valuable, loved individuals on the basis that this might somehow undermine the significance of life and personhood is beyond discriminatory. It is beyond presumptuous. Why not let people determine for themselves what it means to exist rather than presuming to decide for them on the basis of outmoded notions of everyone needing a guaranteed (probably age-related) end in order to truly appreciate and participate in life?
This is perhaps one of the most confounding things for me in terms of arguments against the idea of healthy life extension -- the idea that somehow, the "wisdom of nature" suggests that we are all part of some grand circle that demands our demise within but a few decades of our birth. Some make arguments along the lines of, well, we all need to consume things in order to survive, so when we die, that's our way of "giving ourselves back to the earth" -- and that trying to remove ourselves from this cycle signifies dangerous and ignorant hubris.
Much of the intent behind appeals to "nature" as justified architect and destroyer alike seems curiously similar to the archaic, almost alchemical awareness that the existence of one thing (or one person) effectively cancels out the potential for another. Do some people feel guilty for holding their own form, and dread having to explain their own existence eons into the future, when they might be long past the age that would have meant the certain demise of all their ancestors? Do these same people feel that the pattern that makes up each of us -- that traces the thread of our awareness through spacetime -- is predetermined to persist for around 80 years, pushing beyond that fate only at the expense of other, possibly "better" patterns?
If so, I would seriously advise such people to stop playing the would-be martyr and get around to the business of living their lives, of trying to use their accumulated experience and knowledge and sensory input data to explore the depths and heights of being -- and to help allow others to do likewise. You exist. Existence is a pretty reasonable deal, all things considered.
Stop feeling guilty about being alive, stop feeling like the world would be better if someone other than you were breathing "your" air and eating your food and stepping where you walk. Instead, take joy in the fact that of all the patterns that could have been, you ended up falling out of the aether and into conscious awareness. This is not selfishness. It is not egoism. It is simply the rational acknowledgement that just as you are no "better" than your friends, family, neighbors, or ancestors, no "hypothetical" future-being or ungerminated embryo somehow has more claim to a portion of the universe's resources than you do.
Certainly, we should all keep sustainability in mind and use our resources as wisely as possible. But there is absolutely no reason to think that somehow, you don't deserve to exist past a certain point in time because you need to eat plants and such to survive -- some trees live for thousands of years, and some marine animals are thought to be capable of living indefinitely; surely, no-one would accuse these life forms of taking the place of something else that "should" exist in their stead. Not to mention the fact that aging is only one of the possible things that could kill you -- there's no way to guarantee absolute invulnerability, and we certainly wouldn't "lose" the uncertainty inherent in existence if the single variable of age-related death were somehow mitigated! It is perfectly possible to acknowledge the preciousness and fragility of life, and the vulnerability and struggle and uncertainty that come as part and parcel of biological existence, without making appeals to some divine "circle of life" that demands the sacrifice of individual minds for the sake of making fertilizer.
This is yet another area in which I see a strong overlap between longevity advocacy and disability rights. Many elderly people are disabled, and many disabled people face the same exact challenges as the "average" elder: wondering if they are a "burden" to their families, wondering if their existence is too expensive to justify, and having no idea if the folks at the hospital will even bother trying to save them if they get into an accident or suffer a fall. I don't see any philosophical distinction between a dying elderly person and a dying person with a serious disability; both are people, both are valuable, and both deserve the best in lifesaving care regardless of their age or configuration.
In the ideal hospital, a person's age should not matter with respect to whether their life is considered worth saving, just as their disability status should not matter. The fact that resources are an "issue", that they are limited, and that we humans haven't done that great of a job with this whole "sustainable living" thing just yet should not negate the fact that it is wrong to kill people, and it is wrong to let people die if there is any shadow of a chance of preventing that death. If resources are a problem, we need to work on solving that problem in ways that do not demand sacrifices in the manner of some bloodthirsty ancient idol.
So, next time you come across an article about how radically extended lives would "undermine" what it means to be human, try recalling (or looking up) articles about individual centenarians and supercentenarians. Note the differences in attitude when individuals are discussed, versus where "demographics" are discussed in the abstract. I'm guessing the results will be quite telling indeed.