Five U.S. states including my own, Oregon, allow some form of physician-assisted suicide. Although some young people, usually when faced with a fatal diagnosis, have used the statutes to end their lives, most frequently it is old people who choose the time of their demise this way.
Recently, TGB reader Roger Ganas send me a link to a story in The Canberra Times about a couple in their eighties who, last October, chose to end their lives together.
Although legislation is pending in a few other countries, medically assisted suicide, each with its own rules, limitatins and guidelines, is available in only six countries. Australia, where Peter and Pat Shaw lived in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton, is not one of the them.
“For as long as the blue-eyed Shaw sisters can remember, they knew that their parents planned to one day take their own lives,” wrote reporter, Julia Medew in <em>The Canberra Times</em>.
“It was often a topic of conversation. Patricia and Peter Shaw would discuss with their three daughters their determination to avoid hospitals, nursing homes, palliative care units - any institution that would threaten their independence in old age.”
In keeping with that determination, in 2007, Peter sent this letter to the editor of The Age:
To assure that outcome years hence, the Shaws had become members of Exit International, a pro-euthanasia group run by man named Philip Nitschke who teaches people peaceful methods of ending their own lives.
In the intervening decades, they pursued what their daughters have described as an ideal life; following their careers while raising those three daughters, skiing, mountain climbing, literature, music, good wine and many friends.
Pat Show was a biochemist, Peter a well-known meteorologist who, on a 1955 mission with the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions, conquered a mountain there that was then named for him.
After 2010 or so, their health began to deteriorate. Early in 2015, Peter wrote to his daughters:
“My head swims,” he wrote. “When I am reading, I can’t follow a difficult argument, so I give up, telling myself that it doesn’t matter, and I will read something else. I have just now been reading the history and politics arguments at the end of the latest Quarterly Essay and I am very disappointed that I can’t follow them.
“My condition is getting worse bit by bit, slowly week by week. On top of all this, my eyesight and hearing are no good, my pulse is occasionally irregular. So how long can it go on? Weeks? Months? As you all know, I am not afraid of dying but I am dead scared of incompetence.
“Pat was also troubled by her old age. Arthritis was corroding her joints and she was getting dizzy, putting her at risk of another fall. She had swollen knees and hands, and was finding it increasingly difficult to get out of bed and out of chairs.”
One daughter asked her parents if they would wait for one more Christmas together but, as Medew reports in her story, “...they couldn’t. Or wouldn’t.”
”They set a date. Peter said it was time and Pat agreed. They would enter the 'big sleep' together on October 27, the day after Pat’s 87th birthday.”
The family gathered on for a final meal together the night before, and after breakfast together the next morning. Then:
"Everybody knew the plan. The sisters were to leave around noon. They felt they had no choice. Assisting, aiding or abetting a suicide carries a penalty of up to five years’ jail in Victoria. Their mother would have liked them to stay, but not at the risk of prosecution.
”Just before noon, the sisters embraced their mother and father and left. There were no tears.
“They walked out of their family home and walked down to the cafe where Peter regularly sipped coffee during his 'morning totters' with his friend Frank. They wandered on the beach where they had grown up, and waited.”
There is much more to this loving, well-told story about one's couple's final choice. Read the rest of the story at The Canberra Times including a short video of the middle daughter, Anny, talking about her parents, their beliefs about dying on their terms and abou the family's final hours.
This is such an important issue for elders. In case the scenario I have requested for myself – to quietly die in my sleep – is refused, I too will make “the reasoned choice” of Peter and Pat Shaw. I'm eager to read your responses.