Norma Sherry: Is This All There Is?
Is This All There Is?
By Norma Sherry
It's a downcast day. The sky is a dismal grey, the breeze on the blustery side. Occasionally, a fine mist falls from the heavens as if the angels are overcome in their grief. It's a bit how I feel as I sit in the nursing home lobby watching the sea of elderly residents' parade by in their wheelchairs and walkers congesting the hallways. I sit and try to busy myself while my husband visits his mother. I watch as patients roll by with tubes catching their urine and tubes giving them breath. The faces forlorn search each newcomer or visitor as if pleading for release. The caregivers no longer hear the cries for bathroom assistance or for a push down the hall. The sadness is all-encompassing and it's all I can do to keep my emotions stilled.
As I sit in the contrived cheerfulness of the lobby that belies the true ambiance of hospital beds, bedpans, and doors without locks. I contemplate life under someone else's rules - rules intended to ease the burden of the nurse's aides. Rules like restricted days for shower privilege and lights out by a certain hour. I think how culinary delights are replaced by food lacking all semblance of its natural state. I'm overtaken with the realization that one day in the not too distant future, I too, could find myself dependant on strangers for my care. Unlike my mother-in-law, my husband and I are childless. There will be no beholden or guilt-ridden offspring to look out for us or protect us in our golden years.
For a brief moment I wonder if it's not too late to adopt. But I quickly shake off that notion -- perhaps because there are not enough years to rack up the guilt. So, here I sit contemplating the inevitable. Surely, one day I too will be in diapers unable to depend on my bladder and betrayed by my sphincter muscle. My eyes, which were never excellent, will fail me. My hearing, thanks to youthful exuberance, will leave me missing the nuances of a delightful conversation and no doubt, my bones will have shrunk my five-foot frame to childlike proportions. Fear will overtake me and my more courageous self will be but a far off memory. As to my memory, no doubt, it too will deceive me and I will find myself repeating the stories of my youth ad-nauseum.
So, as I sit here watching the sea of lifeless faces trapped in failing bodies, I feel the fear and sadness welling up within me. I wonder out loud, "Is this all there is?"
It is precisely for these reasons that I began an exploration of available choices for those of us who wish not to be dependant on others when our time comes to say adieu. I have long thought that we baby boomers would do death right - that we were too sophisticated and too full of ourselves to allow our bodies to dwindle down to nothingness without a good fight. Nay, I believe baby boomers and all who will follow will have the know-how to end our own lives in dignity and without pain. The Hemlock Society has been providing the knowledge for many years, but it will be the boomers that will give their society true meaning. Of this I am sure.
I had a friend once who suffered greatly in his dying days. When his suffering grew too much for him to live with he swallowed the handful of pills he'd been denying himself for many months prior. But, as life would have it, they weren't enough and he survived in a dimension stuck somewhere between the here and the hereafter for a year or more torturing his loved ones and filling those who loved him with guilt and remorse.
The Hemlock Society founded in 1980, has one core goal: "to assure freedom of choice at the end of life. As part of the full spectrum of this choice, we advocate for the right of terminally ill, mentally competent adults to hasten death under careful safeguards. We believe that each of us is entitled to choose within the law both how we live and how we die."
Years ago, when we discovered our beloved Shepard was riddled with Cancer, it was our veterinarian, who years earlier watched his son die a painful death due to Cancer, counseled us by telling us, "We can be more humane to our animals than we can to each other." We were able to afford him a peaceful, painless demise. Something we cannot legally offer our loved ones. Surely, we're all familiar with the incarceration of Dr. Kevorkian?
The Hemlock Society proclaims: "Within the scope of the law, decisions about the end of life should rest in the individual's hands. We believe that no government entity should insist on a particular course of death, and that depriving individuals of either choice or dignity in this process is wrong. In addition, our principles maintain that no physician should be culpable for allowing a terminally ill adult to achieve a peaceful, dignified death according to the patient's own informed and stated wishes."
Is there anyone among us that wants to see their loved ones suffer? The greater question should be: "Are we not entitled to make our own decisions about our lives or the end of our lives?" Ultimately, what the Hemlock Society is about is a "not hasty and hurtful suicide, but thoughtful and rational reasons for an accelerated death."
Caring Friends, another end-of-life organization exists because "Pain is not the main reason we want to die. It's the indignity. It's the inability to get out of bed or get onto the toilet, let alone drive a car or go shopping without another's help. I can speak for literally hundreds of people whose bedside I've sat at over the years."
They support the right of patients to refuse artificial life-sustaining procedures that only prolong the process of dying, including the tube administration of food and fluids. They also support the use, upon request, of a sufficient quantity of medications to alleviate pain, even if such quantity may hasten death. They discourage irrational suicide for any emotional reasons in the absence of a terminal illness, and they support the work of suicide prevention organizations.
Further, they believe "that those who feel that death must come without physician assistance should be free to follow that creed, whether they be doctors or patients. But they should not be free to force their views, their religious convictions, or their philosophies on all other members of a democratic, multi-religioned society, nor should they be free to compel those whose values differ from theirs to die painful, protracted, and agonizing deaths."
So, in the end should we not be allowed to determine our own destiny, our own dignified departure of this world? Is this the domain of our legislators or our fellow countrymen? The age old question remains are we not, each of us, ultimately responsible for ourselves? Here we are in the twenty-first century, with rare carcinomas with no sign of a cure, strange and exotic syndromes with no known cures, Mad Cow Disease, tissue eating diseases, hemorrhagic diseases of unknown origins, and old-age and the demoralizing infirmities associated with growing old.
Science and modern medicine has medications and machines to keep us alive - or at least breathing - for what may seem to be an eternity. The question is at what quality will that life be and what will the cost be to dignity? And if we live on do we reside in a nursing home warehoused far from loved ones and cared for by over-worked, underpaid, poorly educated aides? Or are we one of the luckier ones with the finances to reside in an elegant home of likewise elderly? Chances are though we'll end up in a senior daycare facility, transported by a bus for the infirm and cared for by those who could care less.
With science growing ever wiser and lives extending ever longer, it seems imperative that we decide now how we wish to depart this world.and when.
Norma Sherry is co-founder of TogetherForeverChanging.org, an organization devoted to educating, stimulating, and igniting personal responsibility particularly with regards to our diminishing civil liberties. She is also an award-winning writer/producer and host of television program, The Norma Sherry Show, on WQXT-TV, Florida.
Email Norma: email@example.com