Not gone but best forgotten?

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Has Baroness Warnock really called for Alzheimer’s patients to be ‘put down’?

So does Baroness Warnock really believe that the demented have a duty to die?

I’ve always had a lot of respect for Warnock. Her handling of the human embryo issue was exemplary, but I can only hope she’s been misquoted – and seriously – on this particular issue. 

Perhaps the fault is in it being third-hand reporting. I tried to listen to her interview with You and Yours at lunchtime, but technical difficulties prevented her from speaking. But today’s Daily Telegraph’s reporting of her interview with Life and Work magazine has some pretty blunt quotes in it (such as: "If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service") and has understandably raised a flurry of outraged emails, mainly of the ‘this is how Nazi Germany started’ variety.

Many, of course, are from Christians, who believe that there’s a God for whom our lives have a purpose (which I don’t), and therefore equate euthanasia (and abortion) with murder, but just as many are from people working in the health service, who deal with this issue every day, or from families of sufferers.

The problem is that arguing about who gets funding in a state-funded organisation like the NHS is always a tricky issue. For instance, I don’t believe the NHS should fund fertility treatment for infertile people (of which I am one) because as distressing as infertility may be, it’s not exactly what you’d call life-threatening. But when it comes to the care of the most vulnerable members of society – the elderly – any suggestion that the care of such people might be a waste of scarce resources is bound to cause absolute uproar. 

I can’t imagine, for instance, how my friend F has greeted this news. Her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, recently moved into private residential care at a fabulous cost of something like a thousand pounds a week, and she’s expected to live at least another 10 years. Clearly, this must be bankrupting the family, but equally clearly they felt they could do nothing else – she’s their mother, for God’s sake. In our culture, we don’t just leave people by the side of the road when they get sick – we do our best to take care of them. Don’t we?

Other cultures are different. The Chinese, for instance, have traditionally had little truck with ‘unproductive’ members of society like the elderly or disabled (the colloquial word for whom translates as ‘useless’). Someone once said that China has a shortage of everything except people, and it’s true that their scarcity of arable land and chronic overpopulation led over the milennia to a culture that the West would term cruel, but that the Chinese would more likely view as expedient. Suicide of the elderly in order not to be a burden on their families was part of that tradition but given that caring for those who can’t fend for themselves is a luxury afforded to wealthy nations, it will be interesting to see how the Chinese change over the next 20 years as their per capita wealth increases.

But back to Warnock. I’m very much hoping that what she was actually saying was not that sick people should be put down like dogs, but that people should be entitled to make the decision themselves about how they die by setting out a living will. This would detail, long before it’s needed, their wishes if they should ever become permanently disabled, demented or the like. Most of us in our own families have discussed this kind of thing from time to time and given each other informal permission to ‘pull the plug’ once we reach a certain stage, but most of us haven’t bothered to put it in writing as yet.

The problem is, even if we did, Alzheimer’s is one of those nasty little fuckers of a disease that allows people to come and go and come back again, so how anyone could ever actually make the decision to pull the plug is beyond me. It might always be murder, might it not? That would be my fear. 

At present, too, ending treatment for people at the very ends of their lives would more than likely involve simply no longer feeding them, which is a pretty hideous way to go. It’s how my mother died – far kinder would be a shot of curare and get it over with, as is done in the Netherlands, where euthanasia is permitted. It took my mother weeks to die after her stroke, which she had when she was already dying of pancreatic cancer, and for the last five weeks she survived on about a teaspoon of gruel a day. Luckily for my family, the hospice and then the care home took very good and dignified care of her – washing her body and her hair, trimming her nails and playing her music, even as she mostly slept in the final 10 days. When death came, as it usually comes, in the small hours, we all wished it had come much sooner. 

So, my jury is currently out on Warnock and her remarks and I wait to see more clarification on what she actually meant and why. And, although I have a sinking feeling that she did indeed mean exactly what she said, my firm hope is that she’s been misinterpreted. 

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