Death with Dignity for those with Alzheimer’s Disease: Difficult Choices

In the May 17, 2015 NY Times Magazine, Robin Henig chronicles the experience of a 60 year old Cornell psychology professor diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease who decides to take her life rather than live on in a demented and helpless state. The most challenging aspects of the decision is WHEN she will do it. How long can she wait while retaining her capacity to actually take the actions she wants?  It is a provocative and compelling article which we all should consider for ourselvesThis issue is well demonstrated in the movie “Still Alice” released in 2014.   Alice is a professor of linguistics, who wants to take her life but loses the capacity to take her life by waiting too long.

Here are just a few questions: Would you have the courage to take your life? Are their religious or spiritual issues for you? Will your family or loved ones accept your decision? Can you really say “good bye” to life? Is this a better end than one that drags on consuming the resources, (emotional, loving and financial) of your family? Or is it a gift to them to allow them to care for you?

You may also want to read a beautifully written essay posted in 2014 by Gillian Bennett a philosopher and psychotherapist who also was faced with increasing dementia and eplained the reasons for her decision to take her life. It is based on many factors which contributed to her decision including not wanting to be a drain on both personal and governmental resources.  In Bennet’s case, she is clearly seeing a progression towards greater impairment. She is compelled by this awareness to act before she does not have the capacity to do so.  And she does.

In YOUR LIFE, YOUR DEATH, YOUR CHOICE: Having Your Voice to the End of Your Life, dementia is understood as a series of gray areas…the time when we begin to lose our capacity to think, remember, reason, etc. The darker the gray, the more dementia is clouding our ability to think and interact.  Forms have been developed which allow individuals to declare their wishes while completely capable of making decisions for themselves.

Another beautifully written essay by Michael Wolff is entitled: “A Life Worth Ending. The era of medical miracles has created a new phase of aging, as far from living as it is from dying. A son’s plea to let his mother go“.   He describes the descent of his mother and the power of medicine to sustain the body but not the person. While this essay makes it clear that she would not want to live this way, even more poignant is the profound emotional and economic costs of her long illness on the author and his family.

Would you like the opportunity to have assistance in dying if you no longer were capable of living the kind of life that you wanted? Should the government provide avenues for doing this? Have you talked about this issue with your family?  Given the state of Wolff’s mother, would you want to be kept alive if you were permanently and irrevocably in that state?


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