I read recently about John Davey dining on a meal of Mediterranean chicken, after which he shared a Scotch with his closest friend and prepared for the final moments of a well-lived life. As an 85-year-old man who suffered the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease, John had chosen a medically-assisted death to end his days. He was given a series of injections by a doctor. His death was peaceful. Way to go John, you're my hero!
"Having the choice meant John was in control,” said his surviving wife Cheryl. “He had some semblance of dignity and quality of life in the end.”
But here's the problem: my mom, age 99, no longer has that. Oh sure, Cay Jennings is not suffering the pain that John Davey did. But her encroaching dementia has taken it's toll. She sleeps virtually all the time now and can no longer feed herself. Her memory's shot. She's scared when they lift her from her bed. And most of the time she doesn't appreciate or understand what's going on around her. She's become like a little kid... but not with the innocence of youth.
A while ago, some well-meaning doctor told my sisters that the cough mom was experiencing would never depart. We prepared ourselves for her death (me quietly happy that she would at last be able to escape the living sentence that offers her zilch). But Land o' Goshen, as Stepin Fetchit used to say (that's OK millennials, you can Google him), didn't she just rally and get over that hacking! She's still with us, cough-free.
This I know: the once very proud lady who I call mom would want absolutely no part of the debilitating life she's been left to experience now. That is, if she was compos mentis enough to understand what's happening to her. Fact is, when I had lunch with her on her 99th birthday, she suddenly blurted out, "That's it. No more birthdays!" She meant it. She's done. Spent. No need to hang around for declining chapters and diminished epilogues.
Across Canada, 6,800 people chose medically-assisted death between June 2016 and October 2018, with the average age being 73. Equal numbers of males and females were represented, with cancer, ALS, other neurological diseases and heart/lung illnesses cited as the most common diagnoses.
But here's the thing: when are we going to become a truly enlightened society and admit that each of us should have the ability to determine our length of time alive, regardless of the nature of an "illness"?
Right now, you have to be at least 18 years old and meet numerous criteria to qualify for assisted death, including having a serious and incurable illness, disease or disability. You also have to be enduring physical or psychological suffering that's "intolerable" and that cannot be relieved in a manner considered acceptable to the patient. Death must be “reasonably foreseeable,” a term for which there exists no definition. Question: is age 99 reasonably foreseeable enough for someone who was born in 1920 with a only 1.8% chance of ever seeing 100?
And on a personal level, I say to all of this: Bullshit!! Sorry, but I'm calling it for what it is. It's my life. And if I want it to end, damn it, I should be allowed to make it end.
Same with my mom.
Now, I don't have a huge problem with the do-gooders' need for people requesting medically-assisted death to be informed of all other alternatives. Sure, go ahead: we'll listen patiently as you prattle on. And yeah, if it makes you feel good, we'll even accept the law that says two clinicians have to complete separate assessments of the person who wants out. But where this all falls apart is when “You have to be capable, both at the time you are requesting and, most important, you have to be capable at the moment before we give the injections,” says a consulting medic. The same doc also notes that a person with dementia would not be considered capable. Yet in the same breath – and get this – he actually adds that patients voiced “a profound sense of relief knowing that they now have control over something that they felt was going to take over, and really make the end of their life very, very difficult.” What, this is bad!?
So, why is it that someone wanting out who doesn't have some terrible disease doesn't get that honour too?
You see, my poor mother has lost her dignity and her quality of life. It's out the window. I love her dearly but Father Time owes her nothing. It breaks my heart to see her languishing and it kills me to know that she wouldn't want this kind of "life" if she had a choice. It's time for her exit. But that ain't gonna happen in our misinformed society where we keep people alive for... well... for what exactly?
All of which leaves me thinking, maybe one day we'll be big and strong enough to come to understand the real importance of life. And death.