In last Friday's discussion here of physician-assisted death, reader Mary left, in part, this comment about who should have the right to use this service:
”I’d take this even further than if one is terminally ill,” wrote Mary. “I would definitely include Alzheimers. I would want the choice to be able to end my life if I was just old, tired, not feeling well and simply ready to go having had a good long life.”
This got me thinking about my Great Aunt Edith.
She was a fascinating woman, ahead of her time by miles but today isn't the place for her full story, just the end of it.
For 20 years or so leading up to Aunt Edith's death at age 89, I in New York City and she in Portland, Oregon spoke on the phone for an hour or so every weekend.
We talked about everything under the sun and although current affairs and politics were high on our agenda, there were books and movies and recipes and and all sorts of things to talk about. We never ran silent.
In between, Aunt Edith snail-mailed (no internet yet) me New Yorker cartoons, magazine and newspaper articles and other assorted information she wanted to share with me.
It was a lively relationship even at such a long distance from one another.
After many years, I noticed some slippage in her interests. Fewer snailmail envelopes came my way. Occasionally, she lamented that her old eyes got too tired to read easily anymore or even watch television sometimes. Her political opinions became fewer and more muted compared to the past.
This didn't happen all at once. In fact, by the time I noticed it, it had been there for months, slowly expanding – or, perhaps, I should say contracting. After a year or more, I realized that she was gradually letting go of the world around her.
Her interests continued to diminish until not too far short of her 90th birthday, Aunt Edith died.
Ever since then, I have hoped for a similar death, that when it is time to go, like Aunt Edith, I will have lost interest in the worldly things that engage me and lead me now.
Well, at least until the demise of the Trump era presents itself. I will be mightily pissed off to miss that.
Which brings me back to Mary's desire:
”I would want the choice to be able to end my life if I was just old, tired, not feeling well and simply ready to go having had a good long life.”
My first thought when I read that was, “Of COURSE that should be true.”
One of the things that is hard about being old in the United States, is that the “rules” - that is, the types of care and care homes, medical procedures, medications, health advice and government policy decisions affecting old people are made by people who are not old, who have no personal experience at growing old.
A whole lot of them think they know what is best for old folks. But aside from professional caregivers, they do not. The ultimate decision makers – politicians and corporate honchos – don't know and I don't think they much care either.
One example, pharmaceutical companies hardly ever include people older than 50 or so in drug trials so physicians have no idea how dosages should be adjusted for old people's bodies that function differently from younger adults.
And in the six or seven U.S. states that allow physician-assisted death, the politicians who drafted the legislation severely restricted the circumstances under which it may be used.
Why in the world should this be so? Whatever one's physical and health condition, why shouldn't people be allowed to end their lives when the time feels right to them?
Some have argued that people can shoot themselves or stop eating or chase down other means of dying. But why should they when there is a humane way to death not involving shocking violence or difficulty in carrying it out?
In monitoring myself since my cancer diagnosis 20 months ago, I've noticed a reduction in the intensity of some of my interests. I've dropped many political, current events and even health and ageing newsletters I've read regularly for years.
It feels similar to what I saw with Aunt Edith gradually bowing out of her engagement with life and the world around her.
I am convinced that I have been going through the early stages of this disengagement and I will know better than anyone when it is time for me to go. I've made all the assisted death arrangements with my medical team but I can do it only in one circumstance: when doctors decide I have fewer than six months to live.
Maybe that's not the right time for me. And anyway, why should the state care or regulate when an old person wants to take his/her leave?