Not long ago, my husband said rather casually to me, “I wish I knew when I was going to die.” An important wish, indeed. He is 81.

But his concern was neither spiritual nor existential. He was wondering whether it was worth his while to have a knee replacement operation.

The complex issues of being old

Finding ourselves in what are inevitably our later years has many different aspects. Some people bemoan the fact of being old, loathe the many vicissitudes of ageing and have a strong fear of death.

Not me. I have always focussed on the positive at whatever age I have found myself – and this includes right now, having turned 80. Indeed, I have written a .

But this doesn’t mean that everything is easy. We have less and less energy. Our memories fade. Our bodies begin to show their age in one way or another – or perhaps I should say in many ways altogether.

I tend to summarise this as ‘the wheels begin to fall off’.

The knee operation

Which brings me back to this knee.

As many readers will already know, knee operations are not at all easy. Some proportion go wrong (you end up worse off than when you started) and there is a long period of recovery and rehabilitation.  My husband’s thoughts were very sensible: “If I knew I was going to die in a year, it wouldn’t be worth all the trouble. But if I had ten years, it would be worth thinking about.”

And he is right. It is a difficult decision.  I would bet there are plenty of others in the same situation. Or wondering whether to move house. Or whether to embark on some other major undertaking.

All our lives, we are taught to weigh decisions carefully, taking into account the costs and benefits, including the time available.  Yet here we are with a key variable completely missing from the calculation.

I wish I had an answer, but I don’t.

Would you really want to know?

But his simple question sent a number of ripples into my mental pond. Would we really want to know our expected date of expiry?

Yes, there are some decisions where a clear date of departure from this earth would be useful.

You could make more sensible medical decisions. And perhaps some others. You would know exactly when your things needed to be in order. You could say your good-byes in good time.

But this is undoubtedly a slippery slope. How would it affect your day-to-day relationships? Or the activities you undertake?

Would you be out there trying to fulfil every longstanding wish, ticking off the items on the famous ‘bucket list’? Or would you simply turn your face to the wall some time in advance?

Or would you be the proverbial deer caught in the headlights – so much to do, so many people to see, not certain where to turn?


It is strange the things that you remember. I distinctly remember my mother telling me, when still a teenager, about Socrates.

He had been condemned to death and was due to be administered a dose of hemlock (a known poison). While it was being prepared, he asked to be allowed to finish learning a particular melody on his flute.

On being asked why he wanted to do this, he was reputed to have said, “When else will I learn it?”

I don’t know if this is apocryphal, but it is a good story. Doing something meaningful until the very end.


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