There is a difference between committing suicide and an elder choosing to end their life to avoid continued suffering from terminal illness.
We regularly hear in the news about people who have committed suicide, and it’s very sad. My heart goes out to those suffering from the suicide of a loved one. I applaud the efforts being made by the community and several organizations here to confront this terrible trend. This tragedy usually cuts short a creative and productive life, an incomplete life, and families are devastated.
An elder’s desire to end life in a planned and peaceful way to end suffering is an entirely different situation. It is a quiet, rational death surrounded by family and/or friends for a person who will never survive his or her disease.
A tormented, terminally ill person making this decision to end life has most likely already given society their gifts of creativity and has nothing more to give; their life is complete. They feel that life no longer has the pleasure or value it once did, especially for reasons stemming from incurable, deteriorating medical conditions. And usually, families of those who choose to exit are not ashamed but proudly honor the courage and determination of the person.
If we are greatly diminished and not willing to continue living in this state of being and there is no hope for improvement, shouldn’t we have this right to choose how we end our lives?
Call it what you will – exit, death with dignity, assisted dying, self-delivery, choices in dying or even Medical Aid in Dying, which is currently legal in 10 states but difficult to actually do in Colorado. Doctors here are reluctant to prescribe the medicine necessary for fear of stigma. There is also a six-month maximum time period requirement before death. A person with certain neurological diseases – Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, etc. – can live for years even as their quality of life and mental capacities deteriorate.
It seems a basic human liberty to have control over how we die if the final stages are painful and distressing. Choosing the time and manner of death gives us a sense of control. That sense of autonomy is the essence of quality of our ending days. Preparing for one’s death can give us reasons to live, even in our last days, We can live more intentionally, and that matters. We can have the luxury of being aware of who we are and how we’ve lived our lives.
If this is something you’d like to know more about, and find that the Medical Aid in Dying Law in Colorado is too challenging to use, the Final Exit Network is where to go (finalexitnetwork.org). It is a national nonprofit organization serving members throughout the country in all 50 states. FEN is the only national organization that publicly offers education, support and a compassionate presence/exit guide to those who meet the Medical Committee requirements.
FEN’s mission is “to educate qualified individuals in practical, peaceful ways to end their lives, offer a compassionate bedside presence and defend their right to choose.” Their vision is: “Any competent person unbearably suffering an intractable medical condition has the option to die legally and peacefully.”
I know a woman who took her own life in 2018. She was 80, had serious health problems and no family. This was her wish. She made plans, got things in order and finished up with the help of some guides. Along with her obituary in the newspaper was the “suicide information and help lines,” which I believe accompanies all self-inflicted deaths. This seemed strange – it was not suicide as we think of it, or a death by a mentally ill person cutting short her creative life. This was one of the most creative, logical and sensible people I’ve ever known.
There are those who don’t understand this path. But to have the choice to avoid a slow, debilitating decline should be left to the ill person, not the government. Where have we heard this before?
We all want to stick around as long as things are good. But those windows of opportunity during which we are still physically and mentally able to make these decisions are often shorter than anticipated. When ill, we must ask: Are we having tolerable and somewhat fulfilling days, or is there no hope?
Have this conversation with loved ones.
Draw up a living will, advance directives and designate a health care power of attorney who understands your choices.
Make sure things are in place if you get hit by a truck or paralyzed or disabled to the point your life is no longer worth living to you.
And here’s hoping that any competent person unbearably suffering an intractable medical condition has the option to die legally, peacefully and compassionately.
Martha McClellan was a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life and written a book, “The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game.” Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.