Assisted Suicide & Alzheimer's

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • In the 1980s, my mother asked me to make a promise to her. “Dorian, if I become like my mother, I want you to take me to the desert, let me out of the car, let me walk away, and then you drive away. Do you hear me?” Mom said.  I nodded my head, acknowledging her request.

    A little context: Mom’s mother – my grandma -- lived for about 10 years with undiagnosed dementia. Grandma was already suffering memory loss when she moved in with us after Grandpa died. I was gone to college by that time, but heard the reports of how my brother awoke to hear Grandma urinating in the corner of the room. Soon, Mom made the difficult decision to move Grandma to a nursing home.  Mom went twice a day to assist with Grandma’s feeding, often taking my brother with her. During the summers, I would take the some of the lunch-time duties. Grandma was one of those hearty types whose physical health remained basically stable. Instead of suffering from another disease that would claim her life, her dementia was able to run its cruel course.

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    Fast-forward 30 years later and Mom began to suffer from memory loss (as well as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).  I began to struggle mentally with the implications of my promise to her. In 2005, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which was the worst nightmare for both of us. And I had to begin to decide what to do.

    Fortunately, some of the decisions were taken out of my hands. Once she was diagnosed, Mom was placed in a nursing home due to needing skilled care due to her lung disease.  Soon after her placement, I met a friend for coffee. Noting my professed guilt for having not followed her wishes, a friend advised, “You know, Dorian, what your mom asked you to do is against the law. I’m sure your mom wouldn’t have wanted you to break the law.” That statement eased my struggling mind.

    But what if assisted suicide was legal? In earlier July, the New York Times published a story about a British couple, Sir Edward Downes and his wife, Joan, who flew to Switzerland and committed assisted suicide.  Lady Downes was in the final stages of terminal cancer while Sir Edward was not known to have a terminal illness. The couple’s adult children were with them when the couple drank a lethal cocktail of barbiturates. The Times story indicated that the children issued a statement: “After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems.” One son was quoted as saying, ““It is a very civilized way to end your life, and I don’t understand why the legal position in this country doesn’t allow it.”

    I think my mother, if she had known that her life’s path was leading to Alzheimer’s, would have chosen this same path if assisted suicide was legal and would have done it before her mind was gone.  I don’t know if I would have agreed with her decision, but I would have honored it.  And I wish Mom would have had the legal option of determining her own destiny.  I do know that watching Mom’s decline due to Alzheimer’s and eventual death was incredibly painful.  The fact is that either path – assisted suicide or watching a loved one’s decline due to Alzheimer’s -- unfortunately leads to the same sad fate.

Published On: August 12, 2009