Dementia: Is it a death sentence or a life sentence?

As humans, it is our natural instinct to fight death to the end?
As humans, it is our natural instinct to fight death to the end?

Reality TV star Katie Hopkins has provoked outrage by claiming people with dementia are bed blockers who would be better off dead.

Many were offended by her comments; others agreed that she had a point and that people with Alzheimer’s should be disposed of kindly.

There were many times that I wished my parents dead. They both developed Alzheimer’s. They suffered terribly. In my mother’s case, she took pneumonia; she was one of Katie Hopkins’ so-called bed blockers for three months.

We waited at her bedside as she laboured on, trying to breathe, she hadn’t known who we were for some time. Treatment was withdrawn, feeding was also a fruitless endeavour, finally she took her last breath and it was over.

I never thought I would experience elation on my mother’s passing but that’s the emotion that permeated through me.

I can best describe how I felt during the last few months of my mother’s life in a movie title: ‘Waiting to Exhale’. It was as though I had sat with bated breath waiting for the Grime Reaper to call.

The worst time was when she had regained consciousness. She reached for my hand and muttered: “I’m scared!” She was totally aware of who I was and her situation.

My stomach lurched. This is what this disease is like; there are sudden, unexpected bursts of lucidity. My mother had faced death before due to a list of illnesses, but she had always come through. She had never shown fear to her family. Even before her triple heart bypass, she stuck her chin in the air and bravely advanced onward, ready to do battle with The Reaper. She had the heart operation because she wanted to live. I didn’t know how to cope when my mother looked to me for solace that day. I tried to be strong. She was a religious person so I recited The Lord is my Shepherd to her, my voice wavering as I got to the ‘walking through the valley of death’ part. Never had I ever felt so useless. In that moment I didn’t want her to die.

It wasn’t that simple, it might have been had she not been aware of her impending doom, but now that I knew she was scared and wanted to live, I was scared for her and at a loss as to what to do. Death up close and personal is devastating to witness. I remained outwardly calm but inside all the burning questions we have no answers to wandered the dark alleyways of my mind. Spiritual people told me to put my faith in God, but for all my years of Presbyterian worship, I didn’t know how to do that. I felt like I was in a driverless car about to crash but was powerless to stop it. I silently watched my mother fight to survive. Days later she died. After she passed, a strange serenity descended upon me, like a tranquilizer taking immediate effect.

My father went down the same path. Dementia eventually prevented him from swallowing.

He starved to death. He did not give in easily, his emaciated frame lingered for months. The day before he died I lay down on the bed with him. He was awake, we lay snuggling together and he smiled and closed his eyes.

It was then I felt the room fill with what I can only describe as an intoxicating and comforting presence, it felt beautiful.

Katie Hopkins is a figure who courts controversy through saying the most provocative comments she can think of, it keeps her in the headlines. It’s all very well encouraging us to top ourselves if we get dementia, but the reality of when the time for death actually arrives is quite a different matter. You may not be ready to depart.

Until I witnessed my parents’ demise I might have favoured euthanasia. Then, unexpectedly, I saw the fight they both put up to survive. I felt the presence of a strange peaceful entity on both occasions when their time came.

We know nothing about death, yet people like Katie Hopkins are very anxious for many of us to meet it prematurely. Who knows why we suffer?

Watching my parents, I wondered was it the ultimate test in the passing of some great final life exam.

We humans know how to live but don’t know how to die. Death doesn’t appear to be in our instruction manual. Surely there’s a valid reason why our manufacturer didn’t fit us with a self-destruct button?