Will old age become a question of life or death?

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‘Who wants to live forever?’ blasted out Freddie Mercury from the radio and the thought came into my mind of former nurse, Gill Pharaoh, who recently ended her own life in a Swiss suicide clinic.

Gill, from London, didn’t even want to live to the end of her natural life, never mind forever! She wasn’t suffering from a terminal illness, she was fit and able.

Gill Pharaoh, 75, who ended her life in a Swiss suicide clinic

Gill Pharaoh, 75, who ended her life in a Swiss suicide clinic

Ms Pharaoh was a former palliative nurse whose experiences from working with the dying had given her an aversion to ‘the indignity’ of old age. She made the decision that her life was complete and that she wanted to end it in her own time and by her own means. Her decision to abstain from life was driven by a fear of living and becoming a burden to others.

Also this week came the sad demise of entertainer Cilla Black, who, according to a friend, had willed herself to die. The chum told of how Cilla allegedly confided in him that she was going blind, deaf and had arthritis and ‘wasn’t going to linger like her mother’.

All this talk of bringing about our own demise brought back memories of watching both my parents’ cruel struggle with the end of their lives. Both had Alzheimer’s disease. My mother smothered to death with pneumonia and my father effectively starved to death when Alzheimer’s took away his ability to swallow.

As their next of kin and full-time carer I was asked to think about the possibility of peg-feeding and resuscitation, both of which I thankfully didn’t have to make the final decisions on as the Grim Reaper made a rapid intervention in both cases.

Contrary to what I had always thought I’d feel when facing my parents’ deaths, The Reaper’s appearance was extremely welcome. Watching them suffer was unbearable, yet they fought on to live. Both had deeply religious views.

As I sat by their beds I was intensely aware of what I can only describe as a presence. I felt helpless watching them decline, yet the whole time a great peaceful stillness prevailed around us. I didn’t feel the fear I had anticipated I would watching a parent die. I got the feeling that something else was very much in control.

Mum and dad were rarely conscious at the end of their lives, yet I saw both smile in their heavy slumbers and found myself wondering what they were being shown in their minds that had induced a facial display of happiness. Were they being greeted in another realm by loved ones? Were they remembering their lives and the special moments? Perhaps they were being given instructions in what was next for them before leaving their bodies behind forever. I wondered as I watched their slow demise if our date of death is like a graduation day from our specialist subject of life? Is it a day when you finally get to go to the back of the book and find out all the answers?

As a society it struck me that we don’t do death very well.

Death had always been a taboo subject in our family home.

I wanted to talk about death and what was happening, but no-one wanted to participate in deathly discussions. Even the spiritual people I turned to had no answers. Considering the lack of information we have on what happens after death is it advisable for people to go heading into assisted death when their number isn’t yet up? What if by taking our fate into our own hands we miss some critical lesson death would have taught us, a bit like not turning up for your final exam after years of study?

A 2014 study by Zurich University suggested an average of one person per fortnight travels from the UK to Switzerland to receive help in ending their lives.

As making the decision to end our own lives becomes more common place the consequences are worrying.

People might feel they must take on this momentous decision to exit life to avoid burdening others with their care. Gill Pharaoh took this action fearing the ‘indignity’ of age, yet she may never have needed the care of others.

Actress Bette Davis said; ‘old age ain’t for sissies’ she was right!

Many in our society see the elderly and infirm as nothing more than a nuisance. We may soon be living in an age were the elderly choose an untimely death because they don’t have the courage to live.