Where There’s a Will

We think we know what failure looks like in our grand meritocracy—obsolescence, uselessness, the wrong consumer choice—and that’s what we imagine a bad death looks like too. But this picture is a product of reverse-engineering; we work backward from the remedies we’re sold. Before swallowing, we might pause to remember something about our innovative market solutions: they have a funny way of floating free of real-world problems.

The command to improve yourself to avoid a lonely death is not just a social media meme; it is the white noise that drowns out our calls to improve end-of-life care in the United States.

Consider the case of the “The Lonely Death of George Bell,” a New York Times feature that ignited readers’ imaginations in 2015 by detailing, with no little melodrama, the solitary end of a man with few friends, no immediate family members, and a longstanding hoarding problem.

While fifty thousand New Yorkers die each year, as N. R. Kleinfield wrote, “A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.” Even so, as soon as this macabre tale hit the newspaper, Bell’s death became a metonym for the plight of America’s aging baby boomers.