Posts Tagged 'euthanasia'

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Aging

It’s funny how easy it is to go through life and barely take note of the fact that you are getting older.

And that you will one day be old.

Obviously, as a society, we are obsessed with aging. We are encouraged to fight the scourge of old age at literally any cost (despite the unattractiveness of what, alas, remains the only other option). We revel in stories of 94-year-old marathoners, we ingest the pills and slather on the creams that promise even brief sips at the fountain of youth, and we continually push back the timeline that once heralded Old Age’s onset (i.e. “60 is the new 50″).

Still, the aging process happens slowly, and even for someone like me who is unhealthily preoccupied with matters of mortality, imagining oneself as actually being old is an impossible task. I look in the mirror, and despite the thinning hairline, graying beard and emerging wrinkles, I just cannot see a version of myself which resembles the images I see when I think of my now-deceased grandparents.

But while I can’t picture an old-age me, I sure think about it a lot more now that I have a daughter.  Just calling myself a dad makes me feel about ten years older. I often daydream about what I’ll be like when my little baby girl has her bat mitzvah, or graduates college, or gets married – ‘events that may be closer than they appear in the mirror’. I put actual, scary numbers on the ages that correlate with the milestones (50, 60, and hopefully not much older than 80 in the above examples) and what was once an abstract and nebulous concept feels much more concrete.

And this gets me thinking about what kind of old person I want to be. I’ve obviously seen and dealt with all types of old people in my life. Hollywood may want to convince us otherwise, but look around, they’re everywhere. And frankly, a lot of them suck. Disrespectful, I know, but for a group of people who are supposed to have accumulated all this wisdom, so many of them seem mean, short-tempered, full of regret – canes in one hand and supremely bad attitudes in the other. (And by the way, I’m talking about the old people I see out and about on the street, not the ones who may be in hospitals or nursing homes with legitimate reasons to be so cranky.)

Maybe they’re upset because they no longer ever have a moment when they’re not in actual physical anguish or maybe it’s just they feel life has passed them by, that most of their friends have died and no one cares about them (except for the politicians who count on them as the one motivated bloc of voters who consistently make decisions at the ballot box based almost entirely on self-interest).

I know I shouldn’t judge given I haven’t walked a step in their orthopedic shoes, but whatever the reasons, being so bloody unlikeable seems a poor way to live life. True at any age, but especially so when a visit from the Grim Reaper is likely ‘nigh. To try and combat what may just be a natural inclination to turn nastier and less patient as the years go by, I have come up with a few rules that I hope to follow if and when I officially become an old man.

1) Move to a warmer place.

At one time not long ago, I scoffed at the tendency of old people to migrate en masse to someplace like Florida, believing it something akin to waving the white flag on life. Seasons needed to be experienced to be appreciated. How can you truly enjoy spring if your winter is nothing but a rainy, slightly less hot summer? Just as the inevitable harsh setbacks of life must be endured and overcome, so too, I reasoned, must the harsh winter.

But as I turn the page on one of the most miserable New York City winters ever, I am thinking such a migration may be in the best interests of all involved. Cold weather just sucks, and I’m sure it sucks worse when the blood flow weakens and the bones turn brittle. Kids should know seasons, but for the old, it’s just not necessary. Hell, even autumn, once my favorite season, now seems little more than a particularly apt metaphor for the death that is rapidly approaching.

Plus, being someplace warm and comfortable should make it easier to follow the rest of my rules.

2) Join a senior living center.

The time will likely come when you no longer can or want to handle the aggravations and responsibilities of maintaining your own house. And as long as you’re going to migrate someplace warm with the rest of your old fogey peers, you might as well join one of those senior living communities.

Don’t get me wrong, nursing homes are still atrocious, foul-smelling waiting rooms for the Other World that are to be avoided at all costs, but there’s plenty to appreciate about a well-maintained assisted senior living center. My dad’s mom lived and thrived for many years in one of those places when she was older.

I mean, what’s not to like? You get most of your needs taken care of, and even if you’re lucky enough to still have a living spouse or some other family members in the area, it’s nice to have folks you can count on for support or social activities. They’re like fancy dorm rooms for the aged, minus the rampant sex and drugs (though I understand the male-female ratios are pretty favorable at these places for the men who manage to make it that far).

3) Act young.

I’m not talking about being in denial about being old – that’s lame – but there’s no reason why you can’t do most of the same things you liked doing when you were younger. For me, that will mean doing stuff like playing video games, eating Lucky Charms and going to the batting cages.

Granted, you won’t have the same energy level, but there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy life to the fullest extent possible. For instance, take the simple evening stroll, a relaxing and healthy bit of exercise perfect for the older set. But why not spice it up a bit and put some pep in that step? Listen to some music and break out some random dance moves, pet passing dogs, high-five passing neighbors, take a ride on an unoccupied swing in a playground (as long as there aren’t any little girls around cuz that’s just creepy).

BTW, as a related aside, never, ever say ‘Goddamn kids these days”. Oh, you’ll think it often, I’m sure (I do even now), but try to refrain from expressing it (even if in jest). Instead, why not try and keep up with what the younger folks are doing, what technologies they’re using, what shows they’re watching, what music they’re listening to. You might not learn anything, you might not like what you see or hear, but then again, you just might. And either way, it probably won’t hurt you.

4) Take a class.

Pottery or poetry, I don’t care, but don’t stop learning. I probably will take a photography or screenwriting course. So many incredible things to learn in this world, and by the time you’re old, you’ll have forgotten much of the stuff you once knew anyway. You could take a class at an organization that caters to older folks but I’ve always thought it’d be fun to sit in on like a community college class, stimulated by all the young minds (and young bodies – oh yes, I will be a dirty old man).

5) Don’t complain, especially about your health.

This will be the toughest rule for me to follow as I love to complain, especially about my health. But really, no one wants to hear it. It’s depressing, and unless you’re very sick, not worth lingering on.

Even if you are in pain, focus instead on inquiring about others and appreciating the blessings you do have.

6) Vote (selflessly) or Die!

Unless we’re talking about choosing your senior living center’s board president, never make a decision at the ballot box based on self-interest. I’ve always found it ugly how politicians feel they must cater to the aging electorate (and its powerful AARP lobby) and believe it’s one of the main reasons why this country never seems to solve its pressing financial issues. Have faith that the younger generations will respect their elders and take care of you, but when it comes time to vote, just ask your child or grandchild who they’re voting for and do likewise.

7) Treasure your memories while you make new ones.

Alzheimer’s is perhaps the most evil of all diseases as before it kills, it takes away the things that make us who we are. So if you’re lucky enough to be old and have most of your memory intact, treasure it. Take a moment often to think about the past – pore over yearbooks or photo albums, watch some old videos, read long-packed cards and love letters. On lonely nights, really try to relive a pleasant memory you once had – the night of your prom, the birth of your first child, etc. – and embrace the pictures and voices that come flooding back to you.

Of course, don’t dwell on the past to the point where you forget that you are still living, that new memories can still be made, if not so much for you then for the ones who still love you and will remain after you’re gone.

8) Be grateful for help.

Older people are certainly deserving of respect and entitled to a fair amount of assistance, but they should never forget to be thankful for the extra help received from loved ones and/or strangers. Gratitude is probably something folks of all ages could use a bit more of, but I feel I’ve too often seen a stunning lack of manners and appreciation from older people, who should obviously know better.

9) Avoid hospitals at all costs.

I know I’ve already ripped on nursing homes, but hospitals aren’t much better. Obviously they serve a purpose and sometimes can’t be avoided, but I’ve heard and experienced so many stories of people going into a hospital for a simple or routine procedure and getting stuck in an never-ending string of unfortunate – and often unrelated – complications. Perhaps it’s just to be expected that sickness leads to more sickness, but certain things about hospitals trouble me greatly. They are overcrowded and understaffed, fertile environments for infections and bacteria, often limited by severe financial strain and an overworked, sometimes incompetent, usually arrogant team of medical professionals. If at all possible, stay away … unless you’re visiting a sick friend or having a new grandchild (and even then, leave quickly).

10) Know when to call it quits.

Granted, a lot of what I’ve written so far is more than a bit flippant. It’s easy to say I will move someplace warm, act young, be thankful, avoid hospitals, treasure my memories, etc. but the sad, hard truth of aging is that if you live long enough, you will likely lose control over much of what transpires in your life. Bad things will happen and a proper attitude will only go so far in making things bearable.

I remember my grandfather once watching one of his peers move around a shopping mall with a walker and swearing he would never use such an undignified contraption. A few years later, he had a massive stroke and never walked without assistance again. I was devastated when he had a difficult time remembering my name, but though it seemed a small, silly thing in comparison, I hoped at least that the stroke’s utter brutality had the decency to also take away his ability to remember his resistance to walkers.

Personally, I hope I will have enough control over my life that when the time comes when I can no longer recognize or appreciate the joy that life can bring those who are open to it, when pain or sadness overwhelms all that is good, that I will have the ability – and the courage – to call it quits (and also someone in my life who will love me enough to respect that wish and help me move on).

This may sound grim or even barbaric, but I think it is quite the opposite … To end one’s life with a small measure of dignity is in some ways the best we can hope for. I have written about this before, but I believe it is ludicrous the way our society views death and end-of-life issues.

Of course, right now the only states that acknowledge the right to die and let humans give each other the same amount of respect and dignity we give our pets are Oregon, Washington and Montana, not exactly warm-weather climates. Guess I may have to rethink rule #1 …

Linkgasmic …

The Internet is making us lazy, shortening our attention span, dulling our senses.

We still read, but our eyes glaze over anything more than a couple of paragraphs (140 words or less please).

We still listen to music, but now download a single onto our IPod one day and forget about it the next (how quaint the concept album now seems).

We still have friends, but now often substitute brief, vacuous messages or a ‘Second Life’ for physical contact and real intimacy.

Face(book!) it, we’re becoming Twitter-ized. (If only the Internet hadn’t made me so damn lazy, I’d trademark The Twitter Generation).

Yet despite all of the Web’s negative influences on society and human behavior,  the Internet remains the greatest invention of my lifetime, and I can barely imagine living without it anymore.

The other night, doing research on why we treat dying humans so much worse than dying animals, proved once again why the Interweb is so fucking great. I started with a relatively simple search on Yahoo and ended up lost in a fascinating – often only tangentially related – linkgasmic maze of stories, personal blogs, government sites, message boards, news articles, research reports and literature analysis.

I figured it’d be interesting, using Firefox’s library tool, to give you a brief recap of my hyperlink adventure (obviously leaving out the parts where I got sidetracked into watching some porn).

I knew I wanted to somehow incorporate Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do Not Go Gentle …’ poem in the headline for my post so I did a Yahoo search and visited a poetry site which included the full poem and a cool audio reading, as well as a number of other poems about aging. One of my favorites was ‘Affirmation‘ by Donald Hall (I love the line – “To grow old is to lose everything”), though I wasn’t sure what it all meant so I did another search and checked out this Yahoo Answers page.

Then it was on to the main subject. I did a search on ‘putting animals to sleep pain’ cause I wanted to see if indeed the process was as painless as I had thought. I read an ‘Ask the Rabbi’ site for one viewpoint and explored a couple related questions. I then checked out a more negative article which stated that the sight of the needle and the injection of lethal drugs causes animals way too much anxiety and pain. Next, it was off to a somewhat grisly report on lab rat euthanasia. And finally, I read the official stance from the Humane Society.

Next, it was time to research human euthanasia, and I started at the Wikipedia entry, where I learned more about some of the rather reasonable reasons people are against the practice (not the least of which was the fact the Nazis gave it a pretty bad name), which challenged my preconceived notion that it was all about religion.

The Wikipedia page led me to a message board discussion on the ethics of doctor-assisted euthanasia, where one of the responses mentioned the Nancy Crick case, which shows just how complicated the issue is (Crick said she was suffering terribly from bowel cancer and eventually killed herself, but apparently the problem was not cancer – none was found in the autopsy – but potentially fixable damage caused by previous cancer-related surgeries).

Reading up on the Crick case led me to the questionably named Compassionate Healthcare Network, an anti-euthanasia site that informed me of Oregon’s Dignity with Dying Act. It actually pointed me to some not-so-distressing stats regarding that particular law as well as one absolutely fascinating story of a woman putting the law in practice. The author notes that while the woman in the story lay dying, her brother read from William Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality,’ …

… which led me full circle back to reading about poetry on aging. Of course, Wordsworth wasn’t a big fan of materialism and instead got turned on by ‘splendor in the grass’ and ‘thoughts … too deep for tears’, so I’m going to guess he wouldn’t have been a big fan of the Internet. As for me, I absolutely love ‘Intimations’, but damn, it’s long! Who’s got time to read all those words?? :-)

Fade, Fade With the Dying of the Light …

(Continued from Part 1)

… I told my dad after my grandmother died that I believe we will one day in the not-too-distant future view the way we currently handle death and dying as barbaric. Tip-toeing around the subject – by removing machines or using copious amounts of morphine as a way to hasten death – seemed quite silly to me when the issue was as important as watching a loved one suffer unnecessarily.

He disagreed, stating that we need to let nature run its course, which came as little surprise to me since he’s a pretty religious man. In Judaism, as in most major religions, life is sacred and suicide is viewed as immoral (and in some doctrines, just cause for an unpleasant afterlife). Life and death decisions are to be made by god and no one else … which of course, is utterly asinine since we intervene all the time in such decisions, especially when it comes to modern medicine (Are we not playing god when we cure polio, perform open-heart surgery, implant an artificial organ, etc?). Indeed, it’s often technology and our own ‘intervention’ that keeps some people alive past the point when bodies often break down, and yet we dare deny those people the right to use that same technology to end a life they may consider too painful to endure.

The motivation for this subject came the other night when my brother and I discussed the possibility that his 16-year-old dog Lucky had a brain tumor. If Lucky’s test results came back positive for cancer, then the decision to eventually put that sweet, lovable black beagle/cocker to sleep would in some ways be no decision at all: There is no way he would let that dog suffer in pain during the last days of his long, happy life.

And it strikes me as quite ridiculous that society accepts and even approves of the idea of easing a suffering animal’s pain by giving them a dignified death, and yet generally views euthanasia (which literally translates into ‘good death’) or assisted suicide for terminally sick human beings as a crime.

Of course, I am aware this issue can lead to some slippery slopes, as decisions could end up being made rashly, or for the wrong reasons, either by the patient or the family or the doctors. However, Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, which was passed 10 years ago and allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminal patients, has shown that adequate safeguards can be put in place to limit these concerns.

Oregon’s law wouldn’t have applied to my grandmother anyway as her end came with little warning, and – though it didn’t seem so at the time – happened fairly quickly.

I honestly have no idea what my grandmother would have done had she had the opportunity or ability to end her life even more quickly.

She was a fighter, so maybe she still would have chosen to rage against the dying of the light. Maybe with her entire family surrounding and supporting her, she found some meaning or comfort in those final days, in that final struggle. I can only hope so …

Go Gentle Into That Good Night …

95-plus years old, maybe 58 inches tall, maybe 80 pounds big. A colon that had stopped working. A silenced voice that could no longer tell her gathered family she loved them. Lips that were dried and cracked. A sunken face grimacing with each wheezing, irregular, hard-earned breath.

This is the opponent Death chose to take on in February 2007. But if He expected a quick battle, then He hadn’t been paying attention.

My grandmother did not fear death, had even intimated to my parents at times that she was more than ready for it, but she couldn’t help but fight back … at least for a while. Fighting back and staying strong was what she had done her whole life – like when she overcame rheumatic fever as a small baby living in impoverished Russia (when neighbors were telling her parents to ‘get rid’ of her in the river), like when she traveled the long journey to America at the age of nine with only her siblings, like when she was widowed and not yet 50, like when she first got colon cancer in her early 80s, like when she lost most of her sight to macular degeneration.

My grandmother couldn’t help but fight back, and god bless her indomitable spirit, but part of me wondered why all the obvious suffering was necessary. As hard as it was to do, we knew when it was time to let her go. We tried to make it as quick as possible. We took away the machinery and most of the wires. The nurses plied her with morphine whenever pain creased her face. But still she fought … and suffered. Of course she fought. That’s what living things do when Death approaches, and brave fighters like my grandmother do it stronger and longer than most.

But when the fight is so unfair, when all know Death is the certain winner, and the end is a matter of days or even hours, isn’t there a better way …?

(To be continued tomorrow)


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