On April 1, a Dutch law legalizing euthanasia went into effect, making the Netherlands the first country to permit doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives. Advancements in medicine that extend patients’ lives eventually conflict with the inevitability of death, raising difficult questions about the comfort and longevity of the very sick or very old.
For some time, my mother has worked as a nurse in the health center of a retirement facility. Whenever I’m home, I hear her tell stories about her job. Her experiences paint an unpleasant picture of life in a nursing home. She doesn’t hide the fact that she’d rather die than have to live in one.
Residents in every nursing home have just a few years of life left in them. Of course, we all do. Certainly, not all elderly people live in homes just to die; one very chipper, 90-year-old lady plays the piano every day. May we all be so lucky.
But the health centers in which my mother has worked have elderly patients admitted because they cannot function in basic ways or they are recovering from a serious injury or illness. Their doctors do whatever they can to make sure their patient is alive the next day.
Every resident, every night, is given a handful of medication to help this and prevent that. Imagine taking up to a dozen pills every day, sometimes crushed in applesauce as if you were a toddler. A wheelchair-bound woman nearly 100 years old gets a pill for calcium, because — surprise, surprise — her bones aren’t especially strong. Is she that much less likely to break her hip in a fall? Worse, one man in his 90s was given knee-replacement surgery, essentially sawing off the end of his femur and replacing it with metal. No doubt he was bedridden and given painkillers and antibiotics for weeks.
The elderly are passing away as slowly as their doctors can manage, and as long as their bank accounts can afford the cost of care. Room, board and assistance from nurses and aides cost $90,000 per year, in addition to overpriced medications and doctor visits. Is it worth it? Even if modern medicine can, should it squeeze out every last second? How much dignity is sacrificed for a later date on one’s headstone?
I’m not speaking as some luddite; I’m not advocating that elderly go neglected by medical advancements. But in one’s final years, the comfort, dignity and quality of life are currently not as strongly emphasized as the length.
Many people now have living wills to avoid this risk of prolonged, but debilitated life, supported by ventilators or other machines. My mother and father have theirs, but unfortunately, a living will is basically meaningless. If my mom were to collapse in a restaurant (of something other than choking or some easily rectifiable problem) and someone called 911, even if I could prove I was her son and demanded that she not be revived, an EMT is legally required to do all he can to save her life unless the actual living will is presented. She may recover to full health — but she may recover with brain damage. She would live only to suffer, wishing she had died.
My mom has half-joked that someday she’ll get “Do Not Resuscitate” tattooed on her chest. It probably wouldn’t work. She has told me more seriously that if I ever find her unconscious and I don’t know how long she has been so, she wants me to wait until she is cold before I call an ambulance. It’s morbid, but I respect it. It is, after all, her life and her decision. And frankly, I’d rather have fewer memories of her life than any of her in a vegetative state and withering to nothing. If it were your parent, wouldn’t you?
Brian Curtin is a junior in Morse College.