Being Mortal
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Listen in 19 min.
Learn the key ideas of the book by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal

Improving our quality of life, by being aware of death

Since ancient times, human beings have always had to come to terms with mortality. In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande, an American surgeon of Indian origin, describes his professional encounters with old age and death. Drawing on his experiences as a doctor, and his personal account of managing his own father’s illness, which required the involvement of his entire family, the author highlights the inadequacy of the treatment options that are often adopted. Gawande reveals the difficulties a doctor faces on a daily basis, including a series of restrictions and even failures, especially when dealing with the elderly. Finally, he analyses how nursing homes and hospices for the terminally ill really work, while attempting to explain why they often fail to give patients what they really need, namely to live a dignified life until the end.

Being Mortal
Read in 15 min.
Listen in 19 min.

In an age when everyone is living longer, human beings have difficulty accepting the idea of having to die

Modern scientific research has profoundly changed the course of human existence, as humans have never enjoyed such good health or lived so far into old age. However, scientific advances have also turned ageing and death into medical experiences, which means they are only manageable through the healthcare system.

As we live longer, death itself can become a very long process, which we must learn to cope with. Death should not be seen as a failure, or as an enemy, but as an event that follows the natural order of things. Death is as inevitable as taxes, and there is no escape from the tragedy of life, which is that we start growing old from the very moment we come into the world.

Thinking about death or illness is not pleasant, yet sooner or later, everyone is confronted with one or both, either directly or indirectly. Directly, when we witness the slow ageing of our bodies, and indirectly, when it happens to our loved ones. What’s more, since it is an inevitable process, we cannot help but talk about death and dying.

As we age, our organs slowly lose their strength and efficiency. Bones, muscles, and teeth become less dense, while blood vessels and joints harden. As the body undergoes this process, the heart is forced to pump harder, in order to maintain blood flow, causing high blood pressure in many elderly people. Even the brain is not immune to deterioration, as it shrinks over the years, sometimes leading to dementia. As the body weakens, we become more fragile, more prone to illness, and less able to take care of ourselves. Weak muscles cause potentially life-threatening falls in many older people, forcing them to seek outside help. The main risk factors for falls are poor balance, muscle weakness, and a reliance on more than four prescription medications.

The ageing process makes it increasingly difficult to maintain an independent lifestyle. Even the simplest and most mundane daily activities, such as shopping for food or using the bathroom, become more complicated. Eventually, many people find themselves needing the permanent help of family or specialised medical personnel, which often means having to spend the last years of their life in a hospital or nursing home.

It is essential that we acknowledge ageing and death as inevitable, and that we try to make the experience as painless as possible.


The key ideas of "Being Mortal"

In an age when everyone is living longer, human beings have difficulty accepting the idea of having to die
Old age and illness cause a loss of independence, and people find themselves relying on family members, doctors, or different types of care
We would all like to keep as much control over our lives as possible, even when we are old and sick
Health care institutions often fail to meet the needs and requirements of the elderly and dying, and often have to deprive them of their independence
People opt for treatment or care that will allow them to live longer, even when it makes the rest of their lives miserable
Medicine, and the institutions created to care for the sick and elderly, must have a clear vision of what really gives meaning to life
Patients tend to be optimistic and this drives them to prefer doctors who are more likely to be wrong
Families must learn to talk about age, illness, and death in realistic terms, before it is too late
Take-home message
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