I would like to share a story about an encounter I had a couple of years back, when I was nearing the end of my university studies. At the time, I lived in a student apartment pretty much on the outskirts of Helsinki, Finland. Like most of Finland, this area is beautiful and brimming with green everywhere in the summer, but at the end of March— which is when the story takes place—it still looks like a barren, icy desert, and during a late evening like the one on which I had my encounter, it can be very cold and dark.
That evening, my girlfriend and I were coming back from the nearby supermarket, carrying two or three heavy bags full of groceries and looking forward to being home. We were talking about something I can’t recall when we passed right next to another person whose figure I could not make out very well. I had a feeling that it was a woman, but that’s all I could tell. As we walked away from her, I thought I could hear a voice calling—maybe it was her, but I told myself that she was probably talking on the phone or something. I heard her calling again, at which point I turned around to check if she was actually trying to catch our attention.
I was right—she was a woman. More specifically, an old Finnish lady, looking quite lost and tired. What follows is an account of the conversation I had with her—my girlfriend can’t really speak Finnish. I had actually written this down somewhere not too long after it had happened, but I could not remember the conversation line by line, and I had to improvise a little to fill in the blanks here and there as I translated it from Finnish. It is as accurate as I can possibly make it.
“Yes?” I asked once I understood that the old lady was talking to us.
“Sorry,” she replied, “how do you get on a bus around here? I have been walking back and forth for half an hour now, and I got nowhere.”
“There is a bus stop right there,” I said, pointing at a stop less than 400 meters away, in the same direction we were going.
“What bus stops there?” she asked.
“Seventy-nine. It goes to Herttoniemi.” Then, pointing at another stop at about the same distance in the opposite direction, I added: “there is another stop over there. Bus 79 stops there too. Where are you going?”
“I am going to the city center. I’ve been waiting for a bus over there for while, but it never comes…” I am not sure where she had been waiting. Possibly, it was another stop close by, where bus 68—which also used to go to the city center—was systematically late. The lady looked like she was about to cry. As she began rummaging in her handbag looking for something, I asked my girlfriend to take her phone out and check Google Maps.
“Would a bus to the central railway station be okay?” I asked the lady, as the station is located in the very center of the city.
“It would be, sure…” she replied, as she looked around visibly confused and heartbroken. I told my girlfriend what to look for, and she quickly came up with a couple of options. I started explaining them to the old lady, still unsure if she was actually crying—maybe she was just blowing her nose. I was trying to explain what the quickest way to get to the center was, but I am not 100% fluent in Finnish, so I didn’t quite know how to phrase what I wanted to say; as I was looking for the right words, she interrupted me.
“Tell you what—let’s forget the whole thing,” she said. “I’ll just call a taxi.”
I insisted that the bus stop was really close and suggested that I could take her there myself.
“No, don’t worry,” she replied, “I’ll find my way there. I have been living in Helsinki my whole life—that’s 70 years. Do I look my age?” she asked, with an awfully bitter smile, made even more sad by the tears that were now obviously running down her cheeks.
“You do,” I said after a brief silence, matter-of-factly but with a pinch of sadness that I simply was unable to conceal. I was already a life extensionist back then, and I couldn’t bear with the outrageous lie one is socially supposed to reply with in such circumstances. (“No, not at all!”) To be fair, she probably looked even older than 70; yet, telling her the truth was possibly the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. “Are you all right, madam?” I then asked. “I am getting a little worried…”
“Don’t worry—I’m fine, I’m fine…”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you to the nearest stop and wait for the bus together?”
“No, no, it’s not necessary. My fellow Finnish citizens don’t worry about me, so I don’t see why you should…”
“It would really be no problem,” I insisted, talking over her.
“Maybe,” she went on, completing her previous thought, “where you come from, you have a better concept of love, and that’s why…”
“I don’t know about that, madam…”
“Well, that’s just my opinion. You have both been wonderful, and I’m very thankful…”
She then proceeded to hug us both, and reiterated that she would just call a cab. I asked if she had a phone with her and knew what number to call; she said she did. I also asked if she was going home, and if anyone was there. She said she was but that she lived alone. I think I suggested a few more times that I could at least wait with her for the cab to come, but she was adamant that I should not. She hugged us once more, and as I wished her all the best, she slowly started to walk in the direction my girlfriend and I were coming from, faltering along the way. We looked at her going for a minute or two; as I explained to my girlfriend what the lady and I had talked about, she cried a little.
As you can imagine, I never saw the lady again.
Stories like this one are part of the reason why I care so deeply about rejuvenation biotechnologies. Some people would just rant about the alleged heartlessness of Finnish people who didn’t care for the old lady, or, more generally, complain that we should take better care of the elderly, be more present for them, et cetera; however, this is insufficient. Suppose the old lady wasn’t an old lady—let’s say that she were a younger, blind person in a similar situation. We could sit here all day saying that we should take better care of people who can’t see, but nobody would assume that this means that research to prevent and treat blindness isn’t necessary. Caring for people isn’t just about wiping their butt for them once they’re no longer able to do it themselves; it’s primarily about preventing them from losing their health and independence or restoring them if they were lost. As we grow older, we gradually lose both to at least an extent, and while it would be nice if there always were someone to assist us if this was the best option available, it would be much better if aging and the diseases, disabilities, and problems that come with it could be prevented altogether.
Imagine that the same lady were 70 years old but indistinguishable from a typical 30-year-old, with her independence, looks, mental prowess, and health perfectly preserved. What do you think that conversation would have been like, assuming it would have happened at all? At worst, I bet it would have been something like this:
“Hey guys—sorry, do you know how to get to the city center?”
“Sure—here’s how […]”
“All right, thanks!”
That would probably be all. Granted, even perfectly healthy and independent people can be lonely, as the real old lady seemed to be, but they don’t have to struggle with declining health or fear the few days left ahead of themselves. They don’t have to live with the knowledge that they have little energy—and hope—left to find their way out of loneliness or even find their way to the city center by themselves.
Today, we are within striking distance from a world where rejuvenation biotechnologies have relegated stories like this to the dustbin of history; if we really want to take better care of the elderly, simply providing better assistance or keeping them company won’t cut it. What we need is truly effective regenerative medicine that attacks the root causes of aging so that the word “elderly” may one day simply be a linguistic fossil meaning a person born a long time ago, implying nothing whatsoever about a person’s health, looks, degree of independence, or remaining lifespan.