As living, breathing organisms all humans experience life and death through biological and physiological development and growth as well as physical and mental deterioration associated with the aging process. In modern times, the onset of technological advances and medical knowledge has allowed for us to extend our life expectancies, living beyond the age limits of what previously was understood to be the maximum lifespan possible for humans. As Sharon R. Kaufman states in her piece on "Dementia-Near-Death and "Life Itself"", "prevention, enhancement, and intervention are possible, even into advanced age. We can choose, and it is our responsibility to choose, because biomedical technique has extended choice to every aspect of existence, including the timing of death" (Kaufman, 28). Not all may agree with Kaufman's use of the word "responsibility" within the context of choice. Some may view our ability to prolong or speed up death as a necessary choice and human right, while others may find it to be a crude insult and disturbance to the natural processes of life and death. It is our changing understandings and perceptions of identity, life, and health that are influencing our outlook on the definition of death - both of the body and of the self or being.
Above is an image taken from an anti-aging resource site (http://resveratrolformula.com/). The image is an advertisement for Resveratrol, the so-called "anti-aging breakthrough of the decade", which can "slow down the aging process, increase healthy lifespan, fight free radical damage, support cardiovascular health, improve cognitive function, and much much more". At the very bottom of the ad are the words: "turn on your anti-aging gene" accompanied by a link to a video clip on how Resveratrol apparently works. The above image is signifiicant in several ways - first, it acknowledges our growing concerns of aging and our desperate attempts at either reversing or stopping it in its track. Second, the advertisement implies that women are more prone to the distresses of aging by including a picture of a woman (as opposed to a man or both woman and man) looking concerned about the toll that age is taking on her once-beautiful and once-flawless skin. By attaching the word "gene" to "anti-aging", the advertisement attempts to lure in its audience (or shall we say victims?) into viewing the anti-aging formula as scientific, one that can be easily placed within the biomedicine or clinical context. Of course, there is no such thing as an anti-aging "gene", but target audiences can easily be duped into thinking that it does exist because people "are not willing to seriously confront the question of the body physical with anything other than current scientific wisdom" (or in this case, what appears to be the "facts" of science" (Lock, 331).
Views of aging and reactions to death vary widely across cultures and are thus, important in studying our perceptions of what it means to live or to be alive and how our lives or deaths define who we are - that is, how we choose to identify ourselves and how others may identify with us. As mentioned earlier, Kaufman's piece on aging focuses on dementia towards what appears to be the onset of death and how dementia, "as a mutable category of knowledge and cultural form, obscures the distinction between life and death" (Kaufman, 23). Our views on aging and dementia cannot be isolated from the role culture has in shaping our understandings of the importance of "memory, control, and reason" as well as the "existing order of things" in our lives. Anything that disrupts our abilities to maintain normal consciousness, cognition, and expressive capacity is considered to reflect pathological medical conditions that must be distinguished from "normal senile degeneration" (Kaufman, 25). Social scientists and clinicians encounter difficulty when evaluating age-related behaviors and claim that "dementia occurs when aging changes exceed a particular limit" (Kaufman, 27). But what are the implied limits? Who gets to define what these limitations are and what they entail? Is it even our right to debate over the value of another person's life through evaluating their "quality of life"? (Kaufman, 27). By either allowing or ceasing the use of feeding tubes to patients, are we not placing certain values on the meaning of life by claiming our "right" to determine which lives are worth saving and which are better off letting go? In Kaufman's article, Alzheimer's was explained to be a disease that is "like a prism of that refracts death into a spectrum of its parts: death of autonomy, death of memory, death of self-consciousness, death of personality, death of the body" (Kaufman, 30). Humans are complicated beings and it makes perfect sense that we view death in terms of its various components. However, this separation of the components makes it all the more difficult to assign the right or "appropriate" time to guide a dementia patient along the path towards death. Out of the 5 types of death mentioned above, which one is the correct indicator of declining life and which one reflects the point at which aging becomes no longer normal and instead becomes pathological and thus a burden on the patient, patient's family, and society as a whole?
Just like senility has been medicalized, so too has the body itself. In her piece on "The Politics of Mid-Life and Menopause", Margaret Lock discusses North America's obsessive focus on menopause and what it may imply about the "loss, failure, and decreptitude" (Lock, 333) or middle-aged post-menopausal women. Older women, compared to younger women as well as their male counterparts, are deemed as "a liability to society in their latter years" (Lock, 334) due to their economic costs to society in regards to their increased longevity and post-menopausal state, which is considered "[going] against nature" (Lock, 334). The problem with viewing older women as a burden to society stems from the emphasis on the "body chemistry prior to middle age", which is used "as a standard measure of what is "normal" (Lock, 336). In this sense, aging is seen as pathological and women are the main target for much of the blame of this "deficiency disease" (Lock, 343) that debilitates and makes women dependent on hormone replacement therapy. Why are only women being targeted for their reduced reproductive capacities when men too exhibit similar deteriorating signs of aging (i.e. reduced sperm count and motility)? Our views on aging and death reveal much about our culture and the various values we place on members of society as well as their worth to society through their contributions. Death was once seen as an uncontrollable natural process which takes it own course, regardless of our hopes or efforts to slow it down. In modern times, death (along with life) has now become almost a sort of luxury in the sense that we are given the option to manage our deaths and time them according to our needs and the needs of our families. Such "opportunities" were unimagineable in past times and perhaps it is this unimaginative, yet now possible medical intervention that is the source of our inability to handle our newfound power over life and death.
Lock, Margaret. 1993. “The Politics of Mid-Life and Menopause: Ideologies for the Second Sex in North America and Japan”. In Knowledge, Power, and Practice: The Anthropology of Medicine in Everyday Life. Shirley Lindenbaum and Margaret Lock, eds, Pp. 330-363. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kaufman, Sharon R. 2006. “Dementia-Near-Death and ‘Life Itself’”. In Thinking about Dementia: Culture, Loss, and the Anthropology of Senility. Annette Leibing and Lawrence Cohen, eds. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Pp. 23-42.