A recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Seeking Survivors For Lifetime Jobs” provides an interesting segue into the longevity of life controversy, even though it is focused on a very select group of people. This essay will consider the issues of longevity for all Americans and how more receptive laws relating to euthanasia and assisted suicide could improve the lives of Americans and reduce the suffering of seniors.
Recently, I experienced a death in my family. The woman who passed led a wonderful life until about two years ago, when Alzheimer's had begun to steal her mind. Slowly, she became a vegetable, a mindless body waiting for death as her loved ones reminisced about the days when she was vibrant and so intelligent. It was extended torture for all those involved.
Are all of the efforts to extend our lives truly beneficial to society and its individual members? When a person reaches an advanced age, it seems as though he begins to revert back to earlier days, then to childhood, and then infancy, a time when he could not care for himself. Nursing homes across the country are a testament to this bizarre evolution.
Life expectancy has been climbing. From 1970 to 2010, male life expectancy has increased from 61 to 73. This measurement, however, is not a commentary about whether our lives are rewarding in later years. Thousands, and perhaps millions, of seniors suffer from any number of maladies that make their lives difficult and painful.
The impact of extended life is noteworthy in several regards. In America, increased life-years are already putting great stress on our economic system and may bankrupt it if reform is not implemented. Social Security and Medicare costs are increasing at a torrid pace and could soon equal the total revenues paid to the federal government each year.
Americans are not going to put their grandparents and parents out to die. But, are there sensible alternatives available to ameliorate the burden of the older generation? Should we continue to develop geriatric drugs that extend lives of terminally ill patients, even if the result is a living hell for the afflicted and their families? The money spent on the longevity of life could be redeployed to research on diseases that take the lives of young Americans. And, really, do we really want to live to 90 or 100 when our lives will be so fragile and tenuous?
Why can’t we cut through all the rhetoric and evaluate whether a controlled death and transition to another life (or oblivion, if you will) is a better choice than suffering, excessive costs, and unbelievable hardship? Dr. Jack Kevorkian was a hero and pioneer in this area. At first, he was scorned by many and even went to jail for helping ailing seniors end their suffering. He deserves much credit for elevating this controversy.
From a non-religious perspective, the only conceivable group who would vigorously lobby against legalizing euthanasia in America is nursing home operators who care for dementia patients and provide hospice services for the terminally ill. The longer these people live, the more money nursing homes earn. Economically, euthanasia is a win-win for the government and the families involved, which in the long run will include every American.
The major problem for many relates to the decision-making process. If a person who is ill can make a cogent decision, he should have the deciding vote about living or dying. If he is not of sound mind, the process becomes much trickier. Should a family member have the power to “pull the plug” on a loved one? How much influence (legal or otherwise) should doctors have over the decision? Should doctors be allowed to veto a decision to end a person’s life?
Many of the issues affiliated with euthanasia could be anticipated and dealt with in a living will that lays out the wishes of person when he is able to consider the ramifications of his decisions. Currently, many Americans already have living wills that preclude extraordinary measures to keep them alive. These could be expanded, if national and local laws are changed to include euthanasia in cases of great pain and/or dementia.
This is a horrifying subject that we all, young and old, will eventually encounter. Unfortunately, some of the tools to deal with it are unavailable and/or illegal. I am unsure about my personal feelings about euthanasia, but respect a person’s decision to transition with it if they are under duress.