I have read four interesting books lately (and put down a few uninteresting ones) about old age. In addition to senescence, all of these books deal with the issues of life continuance/assisted suicide in some way. Three of them are novels, one is non-fiction, and all were well worth my time.
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is the story of an older woman (72) living in an apartment in Beirut – the same apartment she has been in throughout her adult life, and in which she watched her beloved city being torn to pieces. In a way, she is lamenting both the dissolution of her life and that of the place she calls home. This character, Aaliya, has spent the last few decades annually translating a great work of fiction into Arabic. Because she only reads English and French in addition to Arabic, she sometimes translates from translations – for Anna Karenina, for example. She picks works she loves and labors over them, starting a new work every January. This task gives meaning and form to her life, and reminded me of Simone de Beauvoir’s imperative on the necessity of “projects” in old age. Aaliya piles up the manuscripts (never trying to publish anything) in a spare room, and the action of the novel comes when a plumbing accident floods that room and its thousands and thousands of unshared pages. I will not be a spoiler, but I will say it forces her to think about the meaning of her life. Aaliya is a character who speaks to me. I also have a multitude of unshared pages. I also use writing to give some form to my life.
Aviary by Dierdre McNamer is a lighter novel (written by a younger person) about a group of old people living in a condominium complex. It contains a mystery, delightful characters, and a parable about the ways in which our capitalist culture preys on the elderly. There is a quirky arson detective and an altruistic ninety-year-old. Really an enjoyable read, if a little light on the everyday plight of old age. End-of-life issues and the question of suicide come up as one of the characters prepares to move herself out of the way, but this is not the emphasis of the novel, as in the last two books I will mention.
Assisted suicide (as opposed to euthanasia) is the driver of Belinda Bauer’s novel Exit. The main character, after having watched his wife die an uncomfortable death, volunteers with the “Exiteers,” a group of people who clandestinely assist elders who want to end their suffering. Exiteers help provide the means and are present for support, but the “exiters” must end their lives themselves. Because the legal ramifications are so severe, the Exiteers receive anonymous communications and – other than the partner they work with – do not even know each other. One such “assist” goes wrong and leads to a police investigation of the participants and of the entire organization. Again, I will not spoil the plot, but rest assured that it explores the good and the evil in relation to this issue.
Katie Englehart’s The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die is a noble effort to give us the history and status of assisted suicide in the United States and other parts of the world. In a format that reminded me of Nomadland, she follows six people, their loved ones, and health care personnel as they explore the final option. Engelhart treads a slippery slope with the people she interviews, always aware that her attention might prompt them to follow through. It is an excellent survey of the checkered array of laws in the United States, the more expansive laws in places like Switzerland, and the reasons health care systems (as in the U.S.) often make people feel they have no other choice. Perhaps the wisest interview in the book came with a hospice doctor who was initially against the new assisted suicide laws in her state (California). She thought that dying was a necessary part of the “circle of life” and that some patients often found peace in those last days. After the law was passed, she referred hospice patients to a doctor who would help them if they requested assisted suicide, and she “eventually came around” saying “Having this (assisted suicide) as an option lets people relax…Not even getting the drugs, but knowing, ‘I can get the drugs.’” Yes.
Incidentally, Engelhart recently wrote an excellent piece for The New Yorker about using AI pets to be companions and comforters to the elderly. Apparently, it is effective in many instances, but it would seem to be a fairly hollow response to a lonesome segment of our society.