How sad that Gillian Bennett could see no other course than to take her own life

by Catherine Ferrier.  August 27, 2014.

MONTREAL — I am a medical doctor, and for 30 years have spent much of my time caring for people suffering from dementia: diagnosing and treating it, following them and supporting them and their families as they struggle to come to terms with this terrible disease. You can imagine my distress at seeing in Saturday’s Gazette a full-page article with three photographs about a woman who killed herself because she couldn’t face life with dementia (“ ‘She didn’t want to be a burden’ ” Aug. 23).

How sad that Gillian Bennett could see no other course than to take her own life. How dreadful that she used this gesture to propose that that become a normal thing to do for people in her situation. And how disappointing that the paper gave the assisted-suicide activists all this free publicity.

“I am turning into a vegetable,” wrote Mrs. Bennett in her suicide note. I’ve often seen vegetables in the supermarket, in my kitchen and on my plate, but have yet to see one in my clinic or in a hospital or nursing home bed. Who invented the appalling practice of applying this word to human beings? We react with dismay when derogatory words are applied to people because of their race, language or other characteristics: How can we accept them being directed at those suffering from disease or disability?

Mrs. Bennett then refers to the cost of caring for her future “empty husk,” and to the lack of meaning in any care that would be given to her, which she calls “ludicrous and wasteful.” In other words she is saying: I was brilliant clinical psychologist with a thriving practice; I am becoming someone who will receive care instead of giving it. This is intolerable.

What an insult to my patients! It is an insult to all those living with dementia and to their families and the health care workers who care for them with professionalism, skill and love.

A colleague in the North has told me of the approach to the elderly and dying among the indigenous people of her community. Elders are venerated. It is considered a privilege to spend time with them during their last illness. No one is in a hurry to get them out of the way. I see this in my clinic, too. Not always, but often. Come and meet some of my patients and their families. The diagnosis they receive is another of the many challenges they’ve faced in their life. Of course it’s frightening, as would be advanced cancer or any other terrible disease, but they face it with courage and hope. Not hope for cure, which is not yet a reality. They hope for peace in their twilight years, with and in spite of their dementia.

And many achieve it. I’ve seen families drawn together by adversity. I’ve seen adult children develop relationships with aged and dementing parents that they never dreamed possible: a new tenderness in the old authoritarian dad; a mother they can laugh and sing with when other communication fails; a chance to give back at least some of what parents give us as children, which we never appreciate enough. Of course, this requires putting other interests and aspirations on hold. But they do it gladly.

Mrs. Bennett in effect promotes a vision of society that I would never want to be part of: one in which only those who work, who produce, have value. A society that has no room for those who are vulnerable and need care. Being dependent does not remove our dignity. It’s not what we can do that gives us value, but who we are.

It’s said that ours is a throwaway culture. When the toaster breaks you don’t get it fixed any more; you throw it away and get a new one. But we’re not toasters. Are we now going to start throwing away people?

Catherine Ferrier is a Montreal physician who works in the division of Geriatric Medicine at the McGill University Health Centre and is president of the Physicians’ Alliance against Euthanasia.

Source: The Montreal Gazette