So, I’m wandering around the gym toying with the idea of doing some sit-ups, prodding the free weights and eyeing the computerised cross-trainer suspiciously when I notice some young people doing squat thrusts in the corner.
They are taking it in turns to lift the equivalent of a Mini Metro up and down using only their legs and watching them makes my legs hurt.
Later, they start bench-pressing then get on the running machines and run like stout gazelles for a few miles, before finishing off with some performance press-ups, which are like ordinary press-ups but with heavy weights strapped to their backs and more shouting.
I noticed my age. Not simply because they were so much fitter than me
but because, as they trained, I thought things like “Blimey, that’s bad for your knee” or “Your back isn’t going to like that”. In short, I was less a fellow gym user and more a health and safety leaflet.
I realised, some time ago, that I don’t really go to the gym to get fitter, stronger, buffer or slimmer. I go to the gym to slow down the deterioration that is getting older.
Not that I know what old age will be like precisely, nor even if I will see it. Despite having nursed hundreds of older people, I don’t yet know what my struggles will be. Will they be typical? Manageable? Tolerable?
Last week it was reported that an 84-year-old British woman had committed suicide at a Swiss clinic because she did not want to die of old age. She left a note saying that she wished to escape the “long period of decline, sometimes called ‘prolonged dwindling’ that so many people unfortunately experience before they die”.
Her death understandably triggered new controversy over assisted suicide. A spokesman for an organisation called Care Not Killing said: “Any change in the law [that would permit or facilitate such a choice in this country] would place pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives so as not to be a burden on loved ones, carers or the state.”
It is at heart an ongoing conundrum that pits the profound and personal relationship an individual has with their own existence against the meaning and resonance individual free choice has for society. As a philosophical dilemma, it is incalculable; as a personal experience it is probably as profound and personal as it gets.
I read of this lady’s suicide in The Sunday Times. On the following page was a story saying that medical scientists were growing the first living human hearts to be created in a laboratory; elsewhere was a book review that reflected on old age and the scientific possibility that people could live to be 600 years old.
Science is trying to make old age last longer and to make our decay more gentle. Regardless, we are all ageing. If we are lucky, we may make it to “old” and, if we are really lucky, we may make it there with some choices, some good health and some happiness.
I am not convinced our society is ready for laws that facilitate assisted suicide. However, who can say that the considered suicide of this lady who commented that “for some time, my life has consisted of more pain than pleasure” was not a dignified, profoundly personal, “good death”?
The tension between the rights and needs of the individual versus the resonance and laws of civilised society will remain forever. In the meantime, people will, it seems, find their own way regardless.