When I was merely middle-aged, I sometimes wondered how those who were in their waning years coped with knowing that they weren’t likely to live much longer.
One day, I got the chance to ask the mother of a friend about that. She was a healthy 90-something at the time and was open that day to questions about herself. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the gist of it was that she didn’t think about death much. She took things a day at a time. She was busy, she added, and still learning new things.
I’m 88 now and I’d say pretty much the same thing. I’ve found, however, that the knowledge that I don’t have a whole lot longer to live affects even minor, practical decisions I make, sometimes in ways that surprise me. As we say in my retirement community, I’m still willing to buy green bananas, but I’m not springing for any five-year subscriptions.
Take the recent decision I had to make about my hearing aids. When I got them, they came with a three-year warranty that included the services of an audiologist, who would provide regular checkups and fix any problems.
Hearing aids usually last about five years. My warranty ran out recently, and I had a choice: pay to extend it for another two years or buy a newer model. The companies that make hearing aids keep improving them, and the audiologist assured me that the most recent versions are somewhat better at doing what’s very important to me: damping down background noise.
In my retirement community, the nightly clamor in the dining rooms is overwhelming. I struggle to hear what my friends are saying, and it’s exhausting. I often tune out for a while.
What does this have to do with my expiration date? I brooded for several days over my decision with my own demise on my mind. If I’m only going to be around for a little while longer, surely I should just extend the warranty. By the time the new one is over, I may be kaput, and I won’t have sunk thousands into new aids. Instead, I can leave that money to my children, which is very important to me.
On the other hand, do I really need to be so self-sacrificing? Even if I won’t be around for much longer, shouldn’t I just get new hearing aids? They’re likely to be better than my current ones. Why not enjoy that improvement while I can?
Finally, still undecided, I kept an overdue appointment with my audiologist and, on impulse, chose to extend the warranty. I did it not to save money but for quite a different reason that occurred to me on the spot: since the companies that make hearing aids are working constantly to improve them, in another two years, they’ll be even better, so why not wait for that?
I realized I was basing my choice on the assumption that I’ll still be alive two years from now and for a while after that. I have no idea where that change in my thinking came from.
The truth is, death still seems pretty theoretical to me, and I’m grateful for that. In fact, I hope to feel that way right to the end.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.