May 19, 2024

The ethical complexities of ageing

Two new themed editions of journals deal with the ethics of ageing.

The “ethics of ageing” has become a pressing concern in recent years, with many nations around the world experiencing the profound effects of an “ageing population”. Debates over assisted suicide and euthanasia have also led many scholars to explore the meaning and significance of frailty and vulnerability at the end of life.

It is not surprising, then, that two major medical ethics journals have recently published themed issues on the ethical complexities of ageing.

The May edition of the journal Bioethics addresses a range of topics related to ageing, including the meaning of dignity in the context of old age; the ethics of dementia; the nature of vulnerability as experienced by older persons; and the meaning of a “successful” or “flourishing” end to one’s life. Philosopher John-Stewart Gordon, the editor of the special issue, writes that ageing raises a series of “important” and “perennial” issues that are in need of further discussion: “The last phase in human life is as important and valuable as any other period of human existence”.

Two of the papers in the issue offer a phenomenological critique of the concepts of dignity and ageing, with the authors arguing for a more precise definition of the terms that maps on to the lived-experiences of older persons.

Other papers in the edition discuss issues related to the autonomy and welfare of dementia patients.

A special edition of the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine addresses the topic of ageing from the perspective of a fourfold taxonomy, namely, ageing “as a time of robust health, of dementia, of frailty, or of advanced illness that ends in death”.

Historian and theologian David Barnard opens the edition with a poignant reflection on ageing as a “mystery”. Barnard argues that the influence of Western individualism and the “technologisation” of human experience has led us to treat ageing and death as a “technical problem” to be “fixed”. Yet according to Barnard, the proper response to frailty is not to seek to obliterate it by conquering aging itself, but rather to accept some of the losses associated with aging as part of the human condition.

Xavier Symons
Creative commons
end of life care