My grandparents almost all lived into their eighties. This was unusual for their generation. Now, people routinely live into their nineties. This is fine for many people who live to a healthy old age, then die suddenly. We all aspire to this.
But this great advance carries a very dark shadow. An increasing reality, and one which is set to consume a huge proportion of the economic resources of affluent countries, is that quality medical care now available for people in later life is prolonging many lives well beyond their ability to contribute to society, family life or their own happiness.
What do we do about this?
It is an issue which we simply have to grapple with and resolve somehow.
Over the last few years I have heard some awful stories about the prolonging of lives which had, by any common sense measure, reached their natural end. A vivid but by no means uncommon example of this can be seen in the story of a friend’s grandmother in her late eighties who had a severe heart attack and would not have survived. But resuscitation techniques dragged her from the brink to endure a miserable, ill eighteen months before she eventually died.
I am horrified to think that I or my husband, in old age, could be hauled from the edge of dying to an existence in some miserable twilight until death eventually could not be staved off any more. We have living wills. But would the paramedics called to an emergency if one of us had a severe stroke, know that we do not want any intervention which would drag us back to a life of severe incapacity?
I think that in our materialist society the essence of what is a complex and multi-faceted issue is this: we are culturally afraid of death and do not know at this point how to face or manage it with compassion, wisdom, respect and common sense. We were better at coping with death hundreds of years ago than we are now. Religious faith is on the wane, secularism on the rise, and the tyranny of too much choice and too many options is increasingly holding us all to ransom.
Well, what are we going to do about it?
Dealing with end-of-life issues is very much a topical issue here in Scotland at present, with this month seeing a further presentation of an End of Life Bill to our Parliament by that gritty, courageous individualist and Independent Member of the Scottish Parliament, Margo MacDonald, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. She wants the right for herself and others to end their own lives with dignity and with the assistance of the medical profession.
There is considerable opposition to this proposal right across the board, as can be seen from just one article which appeared in the autumn of 2010 when the previous version of the Bill was presented to the Scottish Parliament:
But Margo, as she is affectionately known here in Scotland, has done us all a favour by continuing to push nation-wide debate and discussion on the issue of what we do about end of life issues.
Economically, socially, and personally, we have to find a better way of managing the issue of how we face death in general and individual’s deaths in particular. It is too costly at every level to keep sticking our collective heads in the sand.
We are fortunate indeed in the UK to have a thriving Hospice movement which offers wonderful palliative care to people who have reached the last stages of their lives. But there is not enough of that type of care.
We cannot live forever. We all have to die sometime. So – what are we going to do about this huge problem?
650 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2012
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