The pol­i­tics of death and dy­ing

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - BY JOSEPH CURL

Every­one I’ve met dur­ing my twoplus months in Florida has been touched by de­men­tia. Not a few peo­ple, or nearly every­one, but — Ev­ery. Sin­gle. Person. A clean­ing lady that helped me get my par­ents’ home ready for sale said her fa­ther had de­men­tia, like my mother. “Does your mom scream at night?” she asked me. “No, but she sees things, hal­lu­ci­na­tions,” I said. “Oh,” she said, “that’s not so bad. My dad was a screamer, all night ev­ery night.”

The tile re­pair­man who fixed up the front walk­way said his mother went into the dark­ness early, just in her 60s. She didn’t rec­og­nize her chil­dren, for­got to go to the bath­room, would sit mo­tion­less for hours look­ing off into space. She lived 12 years like that, he said, pain clear in his voice. “We all wished she had gone sooner.”

The guy putting new car­pet into the beau­ti­ful house on a bayou on Long­boat Key said his grand­fa­ther had de­men­tia too. He got necro­tiz­ing fasci­itis, flesheat­ing dis­ease, when he was in hospice. “You know hospice, that stuff hap­pens,” he said. “He was just get­ting eaten alive, his foot turned into a black lit­tle stump that looked like … ” I’ll spare you the de­tails.

He said he and other fam­ily mem­bers asked the hospice whether they could do some­thing to put him out of his mis­ery. Not long af­ter, his dad died. “They han­dled it. I know they han­dled it.”

I re­mem­ber when my chil­dren were lit­tle, like 12 and 10, I once thought how sad it would be when they grew up, moved off to col­lege, left home — and never called enough. But then some­thing hap­pened — they be­came teenagers. When they were 17 and 15, I re­mem­ber think­ing — “When will these two ever leave?!”

That’s the whole point of the teenage years: Your chil­dren break from you, want to forge out, but you also learn to let them go — and even­tu­ally even want them to go. And that’s, to me, what de­men­tia is, or Alzheimer’s, or any of the mind-de­stroy­ing mal­adies that be­set our par­ents and grand­par­ents in their old age.

I re­al­ized only re­cently that that’s the same as the teenager thing: We’re not pre­pared to let our par­ents go, or even to force them to go, but then de­men­tia hap­pens. Only then do you re­al­ize that you’d re­ally pre­fer that you’re mother or grand­fa­ther sim­ply pass away, slip into that eter­nal peace. Sim­ply said, you yearn for them to die.

In the begin­ning of my mother’s de­scent into de­men­tia, I tweeted a thought: We so love our pets that we can­not bear for them to be in pain, so when they are near to death, we put them “to sleep.” We do it out of love.

A few agreed with me, but many more did not. They pushed “the cul­ture of life,” said that no one was able to judge when best to put an elderly person out of their mis­ery, that al­low­ing any­one to de­cide that for another person would be rife with abuse. One said an an­gry child might de­cide to do away with a par­ent out of spite.

Per­haps. It’s a tough sub­ject. But many more peo­ple — most prob­a­bly — would choose to ease their loved one into the next world with love. The fam­ily would wrestle with the dilemma, dis­cuss for days or weeks among them­selves weigh­ing the pros and cons, be­fore they’d make that most fi­nal de­ci­sion. Af­ter, some would feel relief, oth­ers guilt and shame. It is, af­ter all, a life-or-death de­ci­sion.

I’ve al­ways told my chil­dren that sui­cide is silly — we’re al­ready dy­ing at light­ning speed. Just wait, be­fore you know it, poof, out goes the can­dle. But some die very slowly: My grand­mother had de­men­tia, that same that be­set my 79-year-old mother, and lived 13 years — 13. She didn’t know her fam­ily, who even­tu­ally stopped vis­it­ing. It was all just too sad.

Of course, every­one will die even­tu­ally. “On a long enough time­line, the sur­vival rate for every­one drops to zero,” as the say­ing goes. And no doubt the ques­tion is among the weight­i­est any­one will ever pon­der, es­pe­cially if they be­lieve in a higher be­ing. More, no one can re­ally know what they’d do un­til they are in that sit­u­a­tion, when all the philo­soph­i­cal mus­ings are made real.

But Man can con­trol death. We can de­cide to die, when and how, if we so choose. With tens of mil­lions of Baby Boomers mov­ing to old age, this is about to be­come a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal is­sue. Just read “2030,” a dystopian novel about what to do with “the olds” af­ter can­cer is cured and peo­ple live to be 150.

Not to be a spoiler, but it doesn’t end well.

Joseph Curl cov­ered the White House and pol­i­tics for a decade for The Wash­ing­ton Times. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twit­ter @josephcurl.

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