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When Is Life Too Long?

Some hope to make a graceful exit. Others are in no hurry to leave

I remembered sitting on the couch late one night with my paternal grandmother, then in her early 90s, as we looked through an old album of family photographs. When she came upon a sepia portrait of her sisters and brothers (she was the youngest of nine), she touched it softly and murmured, "If you live long enough, you bury everyone you ever loved, which is too long, if you ask me." I don't think she even knew she was speaking out loud. A devout Catholic, she never would've asked anyone to help her die, but I know she asked God to speed it up and grew angry when he didn't.

On the other hand, you've got people like 92-year-old Rose Rohr, who last year survived a ruptured aortic aneurysm. When she first felt pain, she made a split-second decision, she says, between calling 911 or "going to meet my maker." Rose called the docs, they performed a minimally invasive repair, and her maker gave her a rain check. Now she is back in her own apartment, attending Mass every morning and feeling fine. Who wants to tell her that 91 years would have been plenty long to live? Not I. The life force is an amazing thing - mystical and intangible, confounding and sometimes totally surprising in its insistence against all odds. As 50-something humorist Andy Borowitz recently tweeted, "Figuring out how to not die is on my bucket list."

My friend Dave Daignault, 51, a painting contractor in Redding, Conn., and also a rock musician and fine-arts painter, isn't planning on checking out anytime soon, either. But he's well aware of the curveballs life can throw. Dave recently lost his father after a four-year struggle with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). Now he looks at his 12-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter and winces at the idea that they might ever experience such pain over him. "I don't want them to carry me," he says. "It's not their job. I have a great love, a great life and I don't want to make bargains with God or whomever just to extend it one more day. I'm healthy now, but if tomorrow I'm not? I'm grateful and outta here." Don't his wife and kids get a vote? I asked him. He grins. "Yes, and they always outvote me. I'll probably be banging out classic rock while getting liquid spinach through a feeding tube." Then his jaw tightens. "No. That is not going to happen. I want my life, but not at the expense of my children's."

Katy Butler, 63, a San Francisco-area writer and teacher, saw a deep contrast between her father's protracted death from heart disease and dementia, and her mother's briefer, more peaceful passing from heart failure, after she'd refused valve surgery. It's one thing to deal with an ailing parent when the other parent - a terrified spouse - is standing beside us saying, "We must do everything we can," and the doctors nod, and swiftly, there are machines and processes and medications. It's another thing to support a widowed parent who has walked through that hell once and doesn't want anyone to endure it again. "Early death - a child, a young parent, young people at war or in accidents - these are tragedies. But the death of someone who's had a long life isn't necessarily a tragedy," says Butler, whose book, Knocking on Heaven's Door: A Daughter's Journey Through Old Age and New Medicine, will be published next year. "The machinery of modern American medicine is horribly efficient at preventing death, and not efficient at helping families decide how far they want to take things," she says. "The old - the ones we want to protect - often become the victims."

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Video Extra

Dr. Ira Byock, author of The Best Care Possible and Dying Well, discusses separating the medical aspects of end-of-life care from the individual’s personal experience.

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