I was in my early 20s when a 90-something year old woman asked me to help her die. Her husband was in hospital having a heart bypass operation and if he didn’t make it through the surgery, she didn’t want to go on without him. I’d been her carer for a total of two days when she made this request and had not been trained for this. Fortunately, her husband came home a few days later and made as much of a recovery as a man in his late 80s can.
I worked as a live-in carer in England on and off for several years and most of my clients were widowed women. This same woman had already told me repeatedly to marry a younger man so that I wouldn’t outlive him. Hers was seven years her junior, which meant the gap was wide enough to stretch beyond the differences in male and female life expectancy.
Statistically, women live longer: one of my grandmothers outlived her husband by a decade, the other by more than two. Although the life expectancy in Australia is 81 for men and close to 85 for women, if you actually reach that age you can expect to live for almost another decade (because people who die young lower the average).
A close relative reached the grand old age of 96 and was in good physical and mental health — she was “lucky” in that she stayed in her own home until the very end of her life. But for at least the last five years, she didn’t want to be around anymore. She was not terminally ill, but she was tired. She was done. “Every day I wake up and wonder why I’m still here,” she told me. “I don’t know how I got to be this age.”
I heard similar sentiments expressed by clients I cared for. One woman in her 90s had refused to eat for some time, trying to convince her body to die of its own accord. But she stopped when she realised the serious legal implications of taking matters into her own hands — as her adult children may have been found guilty of neglect. Starvation is a terrible way to die.
Of course, I’m not saying that my clients were representative of the entire demographic of people aged in their 80s and 90s. For one thing, they were people who were paying me to work for them, either because they needed help with everyday tasks or personal care or because they were lonely and wanted companionship (or both). For another thing, they were people who could afford to do so.
And I’m not suggesting by any means that they all felt the same about death. Some of them never talked about it. One particularly energetic 95-year-old was hosting parties and entertaining guests right up until the day she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her family decided not to tell her that her body was riddled with the disease, or that it would kill her very soon. They didn’t want to upset her. That was their decision, and I can’t say whether it was the right one.
What I do know is that I spent a night in hospital with that lady, holding her hand as she wept for hours. She was terrified that she had pancreatic cancer — her sister had died from it a few years earlier. I said nothing, as her daughter had instructed me. Pancreatic cancer is a terrible way to die.
This week, euthanasia became legal in Victoria — the first state in Australia to do so. It is available only to people with a terminal illness who are in unbearable pain. I believe it is an important first step to ensuring dignity and comfort around death.
I realise the implications of stating that old age is a terminal illness or that pain is not just physical. After all, if old age is terminal, then so is life.
But through the wonders of modern science and healthcare, we have extended people’s life expectancy by decades over the last hundred years alone. When my grandparents were born, they could expect to live to around the age of 60. That means that some people now stay alive for a lot longer than they want to, perhaps years after they’ve watched their spouse and all their friends die.
Just as I can’t imagine what it is like being faced with a terminal illness, I have no idea what it feels like to be 95 years old or what I would want for myself at that age. Neither can anyone who is currently making the laws of this country. Because our elderly have been retired for 20 or 30 years, their rights shaping how they live and die are being dictated by politicians who are a generation or two below them.
Surely they should be the ones leading the conversation about death and ageing.