Sunday, October 12, 2008


Dr Philip Nitschke, a controversial Australian euthanasia advocate dubbed "Dr Death", has been banned a second time from hosting a DIY suicide workshop in Bournemouth. He was due to host the event in Bournemouth but a council-owned adult education centre refused to allow him to use their premises and now his second venue, the Hermitage Hotel, has also cancelled.

He chose the Bournemouth because of its large number of elderly residents. It seems a natural presumption. People generally die when they are old. Therefore old people must be waiting to die. If they are waiting to die, the doctors are probably denying them permission to die. Therefore they need his help.

This line of reasoning simply demonstrates how little he knows about old people. In my experience, old people are just like young people; they want to go on living. Of course there are some for whom life has become very difficult, but it is amazing how simply they can be helped. Old people sometimes fear becoming a burden on their family, but most children love their parents and delight in helping them. Simple walking aids, shopping bags on wheels, devices for opening bottles make a lot of difference and the example of Stephen Hawking demonstrates that the more complicated electronic devices can overcome almost any disability.

Dementia presents special problems, but most of us go about handling it in the wrong way. Help is now available from organizations like SPECAL which teach an easy and useful way of dealing with the problems. An example that they quote came home to me very directly. A relative had to go into a nursing home. Whenever, her husband visited her she asked the same question, "When am I coming home?" To reply truthfully, "Never," would have distressed her unnecessarily, instead, "You going to stay overnight, tonight, I'll be here tomorrow," comforted her. By the next day she had no recollection of any assumption she would be going home that day.

Similarly when a widow asks where her husband is, there is no point in reminding her of his death (which would cause her to grieve every time she was told), simply suggesting that he's gone out for a break will satisfy her. The same insight is found in Oliver Sacks' book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Unfortunately, a utilitarian approach has captured the public psyche. People are valued not for their humanity, but for what they can contribute. Organizations like NICE that put a cash value on a single life year (QALYs) have no humanity. If we allow our health services to be dominated by this world view, we will go to the devil.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am glad to read your comments on the mis-named 'NICE' (which is anything but).

Many people criticize the US system, based upon left-wing media bias (the left-wing has the belief that central planning and control is more 'fair' than capitalism). However, the system here allows more choice and more innovation.