How Long Would You Like To Live?

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Rejoice, O young man, while you are young,

and let your heart be glad in the days of your youth. (Eccl 11:9)

The headline in PARADE magazine revealed some of the best news I've heard in a long time: "Life Begins at 60." Now for someone like me, a lot closer to sixty than fifty, that's really good news to be sure.

The article, written by Gail Sheehy, was occasioned by the fact that in 2006 the first wave of Baby Boomers will turn sixty. The author explains that sixty is no longer the land of sedentary, senile, senior citizens. Now, she says, "The 60s are a stage where a maximum of freedom of choice co-exists with a minimum of physical limitations.... Today's 60-somethings still have active minds and vigorous bodies and enjoy the benefit of a mature perspective on life - the first time they possess that potent combination."

Yep - that's me in a nutshell: "maximum freedom, an active mind, a vigorous body and a mature perspective on life."

But the good news keeps on coming. "Men in corporate life have typically topped off around 55, but this generation of grayheads is still in demand."

It's good to know, I suppose, that I'm still in demand, especially since the prospect of retirement is almost twenty years away.

But wait, there's more! We even control our own destiny. "Science now tells us that after our mid-50s, 70 percent of aging is controlled by our lifestyle: how actively we move around, whether we smoke or drink to excess, how well we sleep, how many close friends we keep up with, and how engaged we remain in life, work and community."

Too bad this prescription for a long and healthy life doesn't include the three pills I take each day!

The PARADE article followed closely on the heels of a feature article in USA TODAY about the increasing number of people in the United States living to be 100. The article says that there are approximately 71,000 Americans who are 100 years old or older. And the number is likely to increase. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that 114,000 Americans will be centenarians in 2010, and that number will swell to 241,000 by the year 2020.

The increase in life span is attributed to medical advances of the past century such as antibiotics and statin drugs for heart disease. The article muses, "if those advances continue, will scientists push the envelope of human life far past 100? Can people routinely live to 150 or even 200?"

Wow - what would that do to the Social Security Program?

For most people, the article points out, the important thing is not just how long to live - but how well to live. According to the USATODAY/ABC News poll "Americans are most concerned about their quality of life as they get older. Nearly two-thirds of adults who responded say they don't think they could live to be 100 and still enjoy life." Many expressed concern about declining health, about losing the ability to care for oneself and running out of money. The poll revealed the perception that people believe they became "elderly" at the age of 71, and that the average "desired lifespan" is 87.

So, back to the first question: How long would you like to live?

My guess is that your response, like that of most Americans, would have something to do with "quality of life." That phrase requires some thought, however. As usually interpreted, "quality of life" means staying healthy in mind and body; it implies a sense of independence and being able to take care of oneself; it means being able to enjoy life, not just endure it.

But from a faith perspective, there's more to it than that. We believe that life has "quality" even after the physical, mental and personal assets start to decline. Pope John Paul, in his latter days, certainly demonstrated that.

Someone observed that most tombstones have a name and two dates, separated by a dash, for example: Thomas J. Tobin, 1948-2006. The dash represents everything that happened during your life, between your birth and your death, and as such is the most important part of the inscription.

A complete, authentic description of "quality of life" then, has to include a moral component. As you reflect on your life: Has the presence of God made a real difference for you? Have you loved your neighbor and shared generously with others? Have you kept your commitments and lived with integrity? Have you been grateful for the many gifts and blessings you've received? Have you enjoyed life and cherished all the opportunities that have come your way?

You see, when the end comes the important issue is not whether we lived a long life, but whether we lived a good life. May God give us the grace to remember that.