Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
The Theme of an Old Woman's Life

An Elder Couple's Suicide – A Reasoned Choice

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.


My response? I'm at a loss for words. It's an issue I've struggled with ever since a friend of mine took his own life as he was suffering from ALS. I guess I think it's a personal choice. I can't imagine it's one I would ever make. But who knows? Regardless, it's probably an option we should all be free to choose.

I spend so much time living these days that concerns such as this aren't on my radar. I want to focus on this day right now and all it can bring. Meditation has helped me so much in being centered on the here and now.At almost 72 I know I am lucky to be in good health and have my wits about me. I carry on and am grateful to be here now.

I have a friend who took his life because of his medical condition and what it did to his family---even though he left a long, detailed letter behind---is something I could never, ever do to my family. It's been 6-7 years and they are still not at peace with it and they feel guilty that they didn't do more to help.

I guess my opinion is that if someone wants to die there is nothing anyone can do to stop them from taking their own life but I'm worried that it we make it legal eventually there will be social pressure on seniors to do it even if they aren't ready to go. Too many young people think we're no longer useful at 50 or 60 let alone 70 or 80. And some families would advice their elder relatives to do it based on financial gain rather than compassion. I guess I just don't trust society to be altruistic with this issue if it was legal everywhere and not just used as a opportunity for greed or convenience by some.

That would be my choice exactly. Losing autonomy is my worst fear and a potent one, as I have done genetic testing and know I have a gene that gives me a greater than average chance of getting Alzheimer's.

For me personally, it would be terrible waste of money to sit in a nursing home getting worse and waiting to die. I'd rather that any money left would go to my husband's children and grandchildren. I too resent the do-gooders who tell us how to live and die.

As the few other comments here so far suggest, this is a difficult topic with strong feelings on both sides. Regardless of one's position on the subject, this Canberra Times article is wonderfully well written, intelligent and informative, yet sensitive and respectful.

At this time, my feelings on this subject are similar to those I hold on the subject of abortion -- whether or not I could ever imagine myself exercising the option, I believe the right to choose should be available to those who need it. Maybe some day there will be better options in both areas, but in their absence, I think the higher good is served by respecting personal feelings, and I share those of the Shaws on the importance of autonomy and self-determination.

I simply do not understand the feelings of people who seem to have animosity towards elders who choose this route, or feel guilty and bad about themselves for somehow not having done enough for those who make this choice. This is so different from the actions of a younger person who may have decades of life yet, and takes his or her life leaving young children and other family behind to grapple with all the ramifications. This couple lived an extraordinarily good and full life, attended to all the details and made total provisions for the end of that life, leaving neither a grieving spouse, dependent children or others to struggle with the unexpected. It seems to me that other than, as you say Ronni, dying peacefully in one's sleep (and how likely is it, in the case of a couple, that this happens at the same time?) this is as good as it gets for a death.

I think it incredibly selfish and insensitive for anyone to say an elderly person cannot take his or her own life. My first thought is intractable pain from an incurable disease or condition. How dare anyone tell me I must suffer needlessly for weeks or months because my ending that suffering offends their sensibilities. Nor would I want to linger for a long time if my mind, autonomy, and every shred of dignity were gone. My loved ones will grieve my death no matter how it occurs, so I wouldn't be sparing them anything by dying naturally. At least they wouldn't be taken by surprise. And perhaps they'd find solace in knowing my suffering had ended.

Like Cathy I believe such choices, including abortion, should be available. The tricky part is how difficult it can be.

When my father was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in his mid-70s, he told me that his plan was to commit suicide as it progressed. I knew from earlier abstract conversations that he worried about implicating others so would take special precautions. But as time passed, on one visit home close to the end of his life, he said that in spite of wanting to, he was surprised to find he just couldn't do it.

Sandy Bem's story in the NYT magazine May 17 2015 is a compelling example. Whatever your grand plans are, the execution is not so simple, especially with increasing mental decline. And even more so for someone living alone. How do you know when?

No simple answers here.

I made the decision years ago to end my life when it was no longer worth living. I am still determined to do so when I decide that I am incapable of taking care of myself or I am in constant pain.

The problem is how to do so without making a gory mess of it. I wish I were a scientist and knew what chemical would end my life quickly and without a struggle. Peter and Pat were fortunate that they had that knowledge; yet even then there was the fear that their drug may have lost it's potency.

My children know of my wishes and are okay with it, so I won't be leaving them with the feelings of guilt or anguish that others have mentioned.

I am not religious and bitterly resent the "do-gooders" who try to insert their religious views on others. It is my body, my family and my life to do with as I choose. I only wish that those "do-gooders" would get their influence out of the political arena so that we, who do not share their views, can end our life without legal ramifications.

I do agree that their should be some laws so that young people cannot freely take their lives in a moment of anguish that will pass.

I agree with most of the comments above. I want this right for myself, and I want it to be legal. I wish I could move to Oregon to live!

I have MS, and I have been living with it for over twenty years. Now, at the age of 66, I don't think I could live alone without some outside assistance. My mind is fine, but my body is getting worse and worse. I refuse to go to an Assisted Living facility!

My sisters and I dealt with that for more than ten years as my parents were in one place or another depending on my dad's increasing frailty and my mother's dementia. In their final years she was in the nursing section of a facility, and my dad was in a nice studio apartment in a less restrictive part of the same building. They died within eight months of each other at the ages of 93 and 94. Even though they were well treated and we were a constant presence in their lives and care, my mother was absolutely a vegetable in her last years, and my father was just so weak and worn out.

I don't want that kind of a life for myself. When I can no longer deal with the daily trials of MS (even with outside help), and my 17-years-older husband is no longer with me, I want the right to choose how my life ends.

a friend of mine took his own life by putting a gun in his mouth as he was suffering from diabetes, heart failure.....
My other friend commented, it would be a horrible scene for the family member to see.
These couple's choice is much more sensible in my opinion.

It strikes me that there's an element of agism in thinking that death is a better option than dealing with the natural changes that are a result of aging. Ronni, you have shared research with us that shows that we don't necessarily lose skills as we age, but our skills change. Yes, we may be forced into a dependence we don't prefer, but that too can be a gift we give as we demonstrate the grace of receiving (a grace not many have in our independent culture). It sounds to me like the Shaws recognize the prevailing assumption that weakness is a burden, that old age is an enemy. Rather than fight it, they accepted it.

The last time I checked, physician-assisted death in WA state was very seldom used. There are statutory limits (or safe-guards) which severely restrict its use.

I hate the idea that if I were to become incapacitated, my husband would have to care for me. It would be essentially impossible for me to care for him because he's quite a bit bigger than I; I don't think I could wrestle him from the bedroom into the bathroom and into the shower if he were to become unable to care for himself.

We've discussed this issue and know of a way we could take our lives together should we reach that point. (No guns are involved.)

What I find most astonishing in all of the posts is that none mentions religion or the role it plays in their decision except perhaps for Darlene's remarks. I saw much of life & death in the 48 yrs. I practiced nursing & this is really a difficult issue for me probably because my religion & life experience especially as an RN does play a part in my life's decisions. I have to cogitate on this further. Dee

A couple of weeks ago, Ronnie gave us links to Longevity sites. They ask a few lifestyle questions and decide how much longer you have to live. I'm looking forward to another 15 to 20 years on this planet, so I guess I have a lot of time to decided whether or not I want to off myself. And, while we can never predict the exact circumstances that would lead to our demise, I would like the option for an early departure if things became to much to bear. Having come close to that point a few years ago, I know that I would be able to make the right choice.

I absolutely feel we should have the right to chose when we wish to die. I don't think the religious people have any right to force their beliefs on the rest of us in this matter. I believe if you don't live in one of the more enlightened states, there is always Switzerland. But you'd need the money and proper timing and physical ability to get there. I can just imagine the suicides that could be so much better for the families and everyone concerned than a botched gunshot or hanging. PBS has some good documentaries on this very subject on Frontline. You can view them they their app.

Darlene, I agree completely with you on this very important subject. However I am 'religious' and feel God (or whoever takes complaints on this topic) would totally understand. You have put your finger on the most important problem with this whole deal ie: HOW?
I most certainly don't want to leave a mess. I'm hoping to meet some nice friendly drug-dealer who will supply me with the means for a neat, quick (Instant is better) exit. My family would be sorry but would understand. I have taken care of all my family members in their last years and days and perfectly understand how very difficult it is to accept help as well as it is to give it with respect for the person. My life has been very full, with all its joys and sorrows and I will leave with no misgivings.
Keeping my fingers crossed that it will work out as hoped for.

My children and husband already know my choice: if I am diagnosed with a terminal disease or illness, I intend to get all of my affairs in order, making sure my will and distribution are current, then take one last vacation trip to a place long-wished to see, then come home and suck a tailpipe! I do not intend to put my family through the emotional and financial burden of seeing me through "a last illness" just for the sake of my staying alive for a few more days. I am so in favor of assisted suicide. My father would have been as well; he died at age 89 after nearly two years of misery.

I strongly believe in having the option, and IF I am ever diagnosed with cancer and/or other terminal illness, would not hesitate to choose suicide. I have always felt that I will die by my own hand, and it's not too difficult to find the right kind of drugs to make that possible.

That said, what I worry more about is a stroke that might leave me incapacitated, unable to choose to die (I do have a will AND living will up-to-date). That does happen sometimes without warning, and then one ends up in a nursing home for life. Any assets are soon gone, and medicaid has to take up from there. While cancer and other illnesses/diseases are scary, it's the stroke issue that I fear most.

I don't have children (by choice) and I'm a widow, but do have siblings; however, they have always been aware of my thoughts on this. I don't think anyone, if suffering from something that diminishes their quality of life and has no chance of improvement/endless suffering, should stay alive "just to spare the family."

As for the religious problem, living in the southern USA, the legal option will never happen here. The Baptist seem to enjoy seeing people suffer, which is one reason I am an agnostic.

I don't have a quarrel with the right to die. Some people feel the loss of their autonomy, or the lingering suffering of dread disease worse than dying. I do think that "do gooders" who want to restrict access to suicide serve a useful function. They point out how easily this "right" could be subverted into societal pressure to just die already, before one was ready to do so. And I suspect this could happen in some situations.

I do think any "right" we might acquire to do away with ourselves should be hedged about with restrictions. Doing this should not be easy. But when there is no hope of cure, one should have the right to shorten one's own life, IMO.

I fully agree with those who believe we should have the right to end our lives on our terms. I know almost nothing about details of laws such as Oregon's. Isn't it true that life insurance often is void in cases of suicide? Anyone know how this is handled in Oregon or elsewhere?

My body, my decision.

I totally agree with most of those who responded to this post. I've made no secret of the fact to family and friends that I do not want a prolonged, miserable death from a terminal illness or dire disability. Cara's fear of a stroke is one I share, although I'm supposedly at low risk. I don't consider a totally dependent existence-with my "personhood" and all shreds of human dignity gone--"living". I don't ever want to end up in a facility, but if I no longer function well enough to live independently, someone else may make that decision. I'd rather not be here to see it!

I'm not yet close to considering such a step, but I'd absolutely have much greater peace of mind and a less worried old age if I knew I had access to legal, effective means to end my life when and where I choose. As doctafill so succinctly put it: "my body, my decision. Chase the do-gooders out of my room--please!

When I lost my Mother and Father, it seemed to me they just said, "I've had enough". My Father had a stroke at 93, was recovering -- according to the Doctors -- but realized he would never again be anything like the way he was before. It seemed to me he just decided to die. Mother was suffering multiple ailments and just quit. She too decided to die. She had enough.

How is that so different from "assisted suicide"?

I would favor it more if it didn't frighten me so much. Perhaps I'll change my mind as life becomes more difficult, but right now

i'd like to see how "things" turn out. If that curiosity leaves me -- I guess it will be time to go to "The Big Sleep"

Fascinating post - how great to have such wide ranging opinions - although I am totally in agreeance with "my body my decision" and intend to exercise that right when and if necessary - I do wish we could eliminate the use of "do gooders" as a pejoritive term - would we rather have "do badders"! We just have to accept that some people have beliefs that do not allow them to agree with freedom of choice - and we must use our vote and voices to eliminate them from our political decision making system. Living in Australia where Exit International started we are still a very long way from getting any freedom of choice in relation to our deaths.

The Shaw's story touched me. Thanks

Life has been good to me and still is but when I decide I have had enough I would like to be able to choose ---not be required to hang around and be taking up space just because --

Old age isn't the awful state many imagine it to be - until it is. At that point no one should have to 'endure' to make other people happy. But the how is indeed problematic.

Reading all these comments, it seems to me that a true "right to die" law, far from being an incentive to suicide, would for most of us be the exact incentive we need to live our lives serenely in the sure knowledge that we had the means to end things when we could no longer see the point to going on. By TRUE right to die, I mean personal access to a single, easily ingested medication with no interference from what I would call "death panels" or doctors or religious groups, and no restrictions that would prevent our loved ones from being with us at the moment when we need them the most.

Exactly, Emmajay. It is from this and past articles and comments that I've changed my position to reflect what you state. It would provide great, needed relief for the freedom to living as fully as we're able.

I live in Oregon as does the author. In our state assisted suicide has been on the books for some time now. I personally disagree with this option from a public policy standpoint. I think it lends itself to a devaluation of life in general. Yes, people have been committing suicide since the beginning of time, but involving others in this act I think over time has negative effects to those assisting directly or sanctioning it. It has been demonstrated in the Netherlands, where this has been an accepted practice for even longer than in Oregon, that "workers" who assist in suicide, experience higher levels of depression, guilt, and suicide themselves than is found in the general population. If suicide is an option a person wishes to pursue that's on them, but I think it damaging to others in many ways to be a part of the process.

Even if this is true for those who assist, it is probably less true if they are family or close friends rather than hired "workers". The family would understand better and care more deeply for the feelings and decision of the one wanting to depart. I agree 100% with Emmajay. To have a legal simple ingested means would free up any stress to outside workers, as they wouldn't be involved and give great solace to us to be able to live, without this looming fear of being forced to live when we no longer want to.

I'm in total concurrence with Emmajay (especially) and Mary. I completely disagree that the individual decision to end one's life made by a mentally competent, very ill or gravely disabled old person devalues life. To me, "existence" and "life" may be two entirely different concepts depending on one's health and other factors.

I would MUCH prefer to have the legal, simple, ingested means at hand to exit on my own. Those who work with the assistance in dying movement in the U.S. usually are volunteers who are highly motivated and committed to the cause. They are not paid "workers" in the same sense that those in the Netherlands are.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)