The politics of death and dying
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.