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Hope I die before I get (really) old


Elderly woman

Australia is a nation obsessed with productivity; it is seen as the only hope for the future by economists and the only solution to budgetary woes by politicians.

The most pressing concern relating to productivity – and one that has been threatening for decades – is the huge increase in the number of older Australians, with the associated increase in age-related disability and disease. As the Productivity Commission pointed out in 2011, this increase in the number of elderly Australians coincides with the decline in the number of informal carers.

It raises the uncomfortable question – who will look after us in old age?

The answer to this question is increasingly urgent, not only for its impact on the budget but also for the legions of Baby Boomers who must finally contemplate what happens to those who don't 'die before they get old'.

This heightened focus on end-of-life can be credited to the Baby Boomers' involvement with their own aging parents, and the experienced reality of life in nursing homes – a reality, mind you, that has existed for a long time, but which attains a new significance when it affects the loudest generation.

Not surprisingly, there's a distinct distaste for the status quo, and a desperate search for 'alternatives'.

It's nice to think that the solution will be found in an increase in the quality of care, but, as German sociologist Ulrich Beck notes, 'the very word "care" is dropping out of people's vocabulary'. It has been replaced by an idea of people as 'objects of medical intervention'. The very real fear, Beck writes, is that society will find a solution to 'indignity, dependence and isolation' of old age in the euthanasia movement, and embrace 'self-administered death as a release from over-prolonged life'.

Amidst this dangerous climate, the euthanasia movement in Australia is growing louder, selling itself as the compassionate response to old age and dying. After all, who would put up with old age if – as a recent comment on an economics website put it – you 'could simply buy a bottle of Nembutal at the local pharmacy and take a few pills to end it all in a dignified and peaceful manner'?

There is widespread support for the view that rational adults should have the freedom to decide whether life is worth living. On the face of it, euthanasia is simply an extension of the growing body of fundamental social rights.

The problem is that this right depends solely on individual judgements about the value of life, discarding the notion that life – even an unproductive, elderly life – might be inherently worthy. It also ignores the worrying reports of the euthanasia experiment in Europe, where deaths are often unregulated and unreported, and mandatory declarations are waived.

The prevalence of this utilitarian view of human life is increasingly evident in Australia. When euthanasia is discussed on talkback radio, elderly citizens call in to protest. Their aim is to prove their worth, to explain how they are still productive and contributing citizens, and not a drain on society. But this very response – measuring life in terms of cost and benefit – indicates that the debate has already been lost.

As inhabitants of the modern West, we continually assess the productivity of our fellow humans. When we meet someone we almost invariably ask 'What do you do'? British philosopher Alain de Botton calls this the 'iconic question of the early 21st century'. It reveals our ingrained belief that the worth of a person is inextricably tied to their productivity, a view that now extends to the once privileged arena of old age. Even our elderly, society demands, should be as busy and as useful as the rest of us.

We go to great lengths to hide the reality of death in our everyday lives, which is why it haunts us more than ever from the front pages of newspapers. We have little understanding of cycle of life – no experience of the world of our immediate past where birth and death occurred amidst the hustle and bustle of life. Of a time, evocatively described by Patrick White, where people died in the most unproductive of circumstances, in rooms filled with friends and relatives, with hands held by loved ones and 'surrounded by the stream of life'.

Brigitte DwyerBrigitte Dwyer is an Adelaide based freelance journalist who recently completed Honours in English Literature at Adelaide University with a thesis on J.M. Coetzee's Childhood of Jesus.

Elderley woman image by Shutterstock.



Topic tags: Brigitte Dwyer, productivity, euthanasia, human dignity, Alain de Botton



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Existing comments

Thank you Brigitte for highlighting the 'productivity obsession'. Unfortunately, the euthanasia debate itself has also been medicalised so why are people surprised at its reductionist perspective. Issues related to power, security, vulnerability and trust pervade all areas of our lives. When the illusion of 'being in control' of one's life (and therefore death) is only being challenged when a person faces their mortality, it can become the entire focus (and distraction) from the actual process of learning how to graciously and courageously surrender into love and care, interdependence and dependence. We all need to practice the 'little deaths' in everyday life to become good at this final life task. We need to model it for our children. We need to find new ways to express and explain the gospel message associated with death and dying. My study hopes to do just that.

mary tehan | 16 April 2015  

Thank you also for this article (at 79 of not little interest to me!) which I hope to ponder further. May I commend also the latest Quarterly Essay, "Dear Life : On Caring for the Elderly" by physician Karen Hitchcock.

(Chaplain) John Bunyan | 17 April 2015  

Baby boomers - another parenting disaster both as recipients and providers.

john frawley | 17 April 2015  

I know a Christian man who at the age of 78 had a near death experience last year. It came quite out of the blue. One day he was alive and well and had recently passed an annual medical check-up. The next he was in an induced coma while surgeons operated on him for a ruptured colon. A year later when anyone asks him how he is (No seems to ask him what's he doing) he replies: "I'm upright and I'm breathing." He has reduced life to its physical minima. I can't say what sort of spiritual life he leads but he does 'practise' his Catholic faith. As to his emotional life he is a glass half-full sort of guy. He claims to live life like a loose garment. It could be taken away from him in an instant but while he is upright and breathing he is going to live today as if it were his last. He doesn't go to great lengths to hide the reality of death from his everyday life and he is all the happier for that. He has been given a great grace.

Uncle Pat | 17 April 2015  

Thank you for contributing to the euthanasia discussion, Brigitte. Modern ''medical miracles' prolong life and research aimed at increasing longevity (and Joe Hockey) suggest we could soon be living to 150. This, together with the expectation that people should adopt healthy lifestyles and exercise for fitness, as well as remaining economically independent (not leaners) has provided an overarching narrative within which people judge themselves and others. It's a narrative that denies death in the traditional sense. Life is lived without thought or hope for an afterlife, so when the narrative comes to an end, as it must, for each individual, death provides the exit.

Anna | 17 April 2015  

Thank you Brigette for airing this topic, not only of interest to the Baby Boombers, also of interest to us, the survivors of a depression, a War and continuing wars. At 84 I can see the dangers of the slippery slope should power reside in the hands of a dictator inclined to eugenics; we are not responsible for the political choices of future generations, nor for providing opportunities for care. What is "worthy" about a pain ridden, disfigured, unable to communicate body confined to bed with a heart beating and brain functioning for another year or ten? Morphine of course is available but why should a doctor have the responsibility of killing a patient even if it is an unintended consequence? The following is not intended as a criticism but as an observation. As you say you "have no experience of the world of 'your' immediate past" but we have. A past where our grandparents and even our parents were allowed to die without suffering surgery and it's consequences, medication and a slow and frustrating death. I don't have the answers as to how euthanasia can be legislated for but we need people like you to keep the debate alive.

Mahdi | 17 April 2015  

Agree with Fatima Measham re her comments about the Anzac Day "celebrations" due to be rerun later this month. Not Australian born but a citizen I believe a quiet marking of the day would be much more respectful to those who lost so much.

Katharine Butler | 17 April 2015  

I couldn't agree more, but still cant help but feel that in a world where we are still obsessed with prolonging our time on earth, further and further, that I wouldn't mind having some say in when that next step in my life comes

geoff | 17 April 2015  

Thank you Brigitte for this heartfelt and beautifully articulated article in relation to this topical issue. I found it so uplifting to read as it gave me hope that a younger people such as yourself, would speak out so meaningfully about this subject. As someone who is now mid-seventies, I find increasingly that older people are being deemed 'irrelevant' in so many instances which saddens me greatly. This debate must have more contributors such as yourself. Congratulations.

Nancy Freddi | 17 April 2015  

Thanks Brigitte, but I am not sure that I agree with all your base suppositions. Growing old is now a pleasure to be savoured, with in general good health prolonged for many more years than has been the case in times past, and with quality time (and grandchildren) to enjoy it with. Medical and surgical inputs have helped a great deal in that but so too has been insights about keeping fit, exercise and eating the right things...and NOT smoking! What has not changed, and will not, is that at some point, and now it is more and more in the mid 80s to mid 90s , it all falls apart, and the dying process ensues, perhaps lasting up to two years. The same two years as it has always been, on average. What is currently lacking is understanding of this natural history, and lack of appreciation, frequently by professionals in hospital, but also by families demanding open-ended interventions, that dying has now started, and active management apart from palliative measures is no longer appropriate or helpful (or respectful or dignified).It is not ageing that is going to imperil our community, and indeed that should be celebrated, but the tsunami of obesity that is hitting us. This is destroying the positive equipoise we have built up with great effort since the (almost) end of the smoking epidemic and before that the scourge of infectious diseases. Obesity affects half the populations and more amongst some sections such as Aboriginals; for them life will be short and brutal, and very expensive for governments.

Eugene | 17 April 2015  

Euthanasia is spiritually incorrect. http://www.spiritualresearchfoundation.org/spiritualresearch/spiritualscience/euthanasia

dragana | 18 April 2015  

The Economy has become an idol, so euthanasia would free up health care and centrelink money so the rich can continue to get richer and the poor poorer as is the current trend.In previous times grandma or grandpa came to live with their children and grandchildren and all assisted them with their needs. Euthanasia puts you out of my misery. But giving one group of people a licence to kill another group of people is bad public policy. It targets the most vulnerable who have a fundamental right to life.

Katrina Haller | 18 April 2015  

Until God abrogates the 5th Commandment, Euthanasia is not an option. And after my botched bowel cancer op,& septicemia spreading,I rejected an arbitrary unilateral medical decision to let me die! Next day or so I argued through intermediary [who alerted me to surgical shenanigans] to 'up the antibiotics' and let God decide when I died. Unbeknown to me parishioners were told I had 2 days to live, So here I am today the bane of internet modernists, dissenters and ilk. Viva Sinai! while embracing the evening of life, with top post stroke/cancer after-care

Father John George | 20 April 2015  

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