I’ve been working with dementia patients for quite a while now, assisting aging individuals at various stages ranging from mobile, literate and continent, to well – not. It is everything that one would expect it to be. I have stayed overtime thrice in this past week alone, minding cantankerous patients and changing bedsheets while my workmate finally has her long-overdue break.
In the dementia ward especially, the majority of these persons would fit the criteria proposed by most euthanasia advocates. Immobile, helpless, they possess too low a quality of life to expend limited resources to continually support. I recall that Baroness Warnock, a euthanasia advocate, once stated that dementia sufferers who are a burden on their caregivers “may have a duty to die”. Now, a mere decade after those comments surfaced, support for movements of the same vein are much more prominent in the current cultural sphere.
Yet it simply has to be said: voluntary euthanasia, the rose-tinted synonym for suicide, is hardly the compassionate choice it is so vehemently touted to be. The call for it nowadays appears to be a glorified renewal of the archaic custom of senicide – the abandonment to death or suicide of the elderly.
Is there compassion in a society that looks at the individuals who contributed to the free country it now inherits, and asks whether their lives are worth continuing? After everything our elderly accomplished in the zenith of their working years, do we have to ask whether it’s worth keeping them alive to see the fruits of their labour?
The streak of utilitarianism in modern thought begs the question: What do these waning individuals have yet to offer, then? The taxpayer money funding elderly healthcare could be spent towards any of the other numerous nationwide issues: child poverty, transport. The higher profitability that way will remain diplomatically unmentioned. “Also, be compassionate,” some would say. If the patients I work with could understand their situation, they would not want to continue a burdensome life. Is that it? Am I merely prolonging an expensive non-existence?
Of course not – because life matters at every stage. The thousands of New Zealanders in aged residential care are worth every cent put towards them. Regardless of whether they are capable of appreciating it, adult diapers and all. These individuals are a testament to progress, our advances in technology and culture over the past century. To have lived through the dark periods of history documented so well in our times deserves respect on its own.
It is entirely inaccurate to opine that these people provide nothing to society. Above all, the incapacitated elderly remind us to appreciate what everyone else living a conventional metropolitan life takes for granted. The advice that should have been given to their own descendants often finds its way to me, simply because I’m there to hear it. You can call them pre-21st century lifehacks, accrued over a lifetime different from ours but just as useful.
How could we have made the aging in our society believe they are a waste of time, when they still have so much to give? How could we call them useless after a lifetime of giving themselves, and plead sympathy for them at the notion of ending it prematurely?
Ultimately, the voluntary euthanasia advocate can claim practicality as a basis for their stance – but not compassion. Compassion would spur visits to the incapacitated and forgotten. It would remind the forgetful elderly that they matter.
The “compassionate” choice for us is to immediately crush the mistaken belief that the older, declining generation contributes nothing. And we need to remind the elderly of this as often as ourselves.