The Evening of Life
The Challenges of Aging and Dying Well
214 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: September 2020
- ISBN: 9780268108021
- Published: September 2020
- ISBN: 9780268108014
- Published: September 2020
- ISBN: 9780268108038
- Catholic Media Association Book Award: Grief and Bereavement, Second Place
- Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award: Grief/Grieving, Silver Medal
Although philosophy, religion, and civic cultures used to help people prepare for aging and dying well, this is no longer the case. Today, aging is frequently seen as a problem to be solved and death as a harsh reality to be masked. In part, our cultural confusion is rooted in an inadequate conception of the human person, which is based on a notion of absolute individual autonomy that cannot but fail in the face of the dependency that comes with aging and decline at the end of life. To help correct the ethical impoverishment at the root of our contemporary social confusion, The Evening of Life provides an interdisciplinary examination of the challenges of aging and dying well. It calls for a re-envisioning of cultural concepts, practices, and virtues that embraces decline, dependency, and finitude rather than stigmatizes them. Bringing together the work of sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, and medical practitioners, this collection of essays develops an interrelated set of conceptual tools to discuss the current challenges posed to aging and dying well, such as flourishing, temporality, narrative, and friendship. Above all, it proposes a positive understanding of thriving in old age that is rooted in our shared vulnerability as human beings. It also suggests how some of these tools and concepts can be deployed to create a medical system that better responds to our contemporary needs. The Evening of Life will interest bioethicists, medical practitioners, clinicians, and others involved in the care of the aging and dying.
Contributors: Joseph E. Davis, Sharon R. Kaufman, Paul Scherz, Wilfred M. McClay, Kevin Aho, Charles Guignon, Bryan S. Turner, Janelle S. Taylor, Sarah L. Szanton, Janiece Taylor, and Justin Mutter
“In this important and provocative book, the editors and authors make a compelling case for a much needed ‘ethics of aging’ that holistically addresses the unique character of the aging process and its role in defining a ‘good life.’” —Daniel B. Hinshaw, MD, author of Touch and the Healing of the World
“Old age is presented as a question, asked from diverse perspectives. As readers view old age as a construction of medical policies, a philosophical puzzle, and a network of altruistic friends, they will be drawn in to ask what to call this period of life, how to respond to it, and ultimately how to live it.” —Arthur W. Frank, author of The Wounded Storyteller
"Insights from The Evening of Life are both comforting and illuminating in discussions regarding the present and future of aging and the end of life." —Hastings Center Report
"According to St. Paul, we will receive a transformed body that will make up for the current one's deficiencies, which are likely to be many if we have been fortunate enough to reach the old age whose gifts and challenges these authors so intelligently and sensitively explore." —Studies in Christian Ethics
Those with a professional or personal interest in improving care for aging and dying adults will certainly find helpful insights within this book’s chapters. -Journal of Applied Gerontology
While not unique to old age, the ongoing dissolution of the life course has been especially significant for old age, where the role of a defining community to provide direction and criteria for meaning is most obvious and essential. Aging, decline, and approaching death are some of the most complex and unsettling aspects of human experience. While historically strengthened and mediated by rites of passage, kinship networks, filial duty to ancestors, hierarchies that honor wisdom, social practices that superintend grief, and arts of suffering and dying, today’s older adults invariably find such common symbols or shared traditions weakened. In our time, meaning in old age has become more subjective and private.
The task of preparing people for their later years, once a central cultural and philosophical task, has correspondingly waned. While the ideal form of character in the face of aging and death has varied by time and school of thought, social and cultural goals were nonetheless broadly similar. Social philosophies, religious communities, and civic cultures helped guide people in a process of preparing for aging and dying “well.” Such normative guidance and inspiration did not necessarily mean that old people were given special respect or honor, or that old age was treated as a social category deserving of special treatment or public concern. Social histories tell an ambiguous story, with critical variation in respect accorded to different social groups. But social norms of aging and dying did provide direction and shared expectations about how to live. One need only consider the many current debates that frame aging as a problem to be solved—with “successful aging,” or anti-aging interventions, or “engineered negligible senescence,” or assisted suicide—to see our communal and ethical quandary. We have precious few resources for even thinking about the enduring questions of a good old age, its meaning as a distinctive phase in the life course or stage in life’s pilgrimage, and how we might prepare for and embrace the twilight years of life.
Our cultural impoverishment is rooted, most fundamentally, in a deficient conception of the person in society. Our dominant image of persons as free and unencumbered agents, as masters of choice, while inadequate at every stage of life, is especially detrimental in the last. Liberal, autonomous individualism provides virtually no criteria to inform our choices beyond personal preference. It situates us under a regime that effectively fixes aging and death as realities to hide; that works to undermine our ability to cope with our finitude and inevitable decline; that makes it difficult to sustain a valued sense of self in the face of dependency, disability, and an aging body; and that works against a positive conception of living in older age. It is a regime that offers little grounds for social solidarity across the generations or reasons to strengthen it.
In our moment, the societies of the industrialized world urgently need an ethics of aging that centers on the question of a good human life in its later years—an old age that is lived well and that goes well. Toward this ethics there are currently only scattered contributions. Most of the existing literature might best be described as ethical reflection on issues that predominantly involve older people. This is an abstract ethics focused on rights and duties and decision-making in legal matters and care in the context of formal institutions. It is not an ethics of everyday life for those navigating their twilight years. Of course, protections are crucial in hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions where older people are especially vulnerable. An essential element of a good life is one in which people are treated justly, and an ethics of the person includes obligations. But a substantive, normative ethics of aging must concern aging persons in all their complexity, and go beyond a concern with negative liberty.
We need to re-envision a robust set of cultural concepts, practices, and virtues for advanced age and death, for individuals as well as communities. We need a positive image of living in old age, rooted in our shared potentiality and vulnerability, an image that engages our creativity and generativity juxtaposed with our frailty, our dependence, and our finitude. We need a holistic orientation to aging persons that is capable of guiding and delimiting interventions, whether medical or quality of life. We need, in short, an ethics of aging that takes up conceptions of well-being in the evening of life and their complex interplay with the cultural frameworks, social arrangements, and technologies that impact those conceptions and might be shaped to sustain and satisfy them.
Toward such an ethics, this book is an intervention.