Friday, September 26, 2008

Our duty to humanity

Forgive me if this column takes on a rather sombre tone this week, but sometimes a news story comes about which cannot be ignored.
This week Barnoness Warnock - from all accounts an old biddy with not an ounce of compassion - stated that elderly and frail people should consider that they have duty to end their own lives in order to stop themselves becoming a burden on their families.
In particular Lady Warnock, an influential figure in Whitehall, referred to dementia sufferers stating: “If you are demented, you are wasting people's lives, your family's lives, and you are wasting the resources of the National Health Service.”
I’m almost tempted to let her comments hang there.
Surely such an inhumane approach to the weaker members of our society needs no comment. Are we really willing to accept a new order where the answer to the growing number of people developing dementia is to encourage those people to commit suicide? Surely we can’t possibly be promoting a society where only the fittest and most able minded should be encouraged to live out their natural lives?
Haven’t we been here before, in or around the 1940s, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t end well then? Now previously I’ve been in the camp where I’ve agreed with the idea of Euthanasia. When someone is in intolerable pain and wishes to end their life with dignity then I feel they should have that option.
After all, we live in a society where we put animals to sleep rather than let them endure extremes of pain or suffering. But after reading Baroness Warnock’s comments (she being one of the biggest campaigners for euthanasia in the UK), I’m not so sure.
Where can we be sure when to draw the line? I’ve always hated that “start of a slippery slope” argument believing that there is no point in pre-empting problems where none exist, but suddenly it has come into sharp focus.
What defines a burden? Who decides if that burden is too much? Is it the once healthy and capable human crippled, emotionally and physically by the effects of their decline into ill health? Or is it the family who have to rally round to provide care? Or is it, as some observers have suggested could be the case, the supposed support services struggling to meet the needs of those who need care?
To suggest it would be less of a burden on a family, a society or the health service to simply top yourself as the first signs of old age kick in (taking into account those most severely affected by dementia would not have the capability to make a decision to end their lives never mind carry it out), is nothing more than a disgrace.
We should not, as human beings, even dare to suggest that those less well and fit should die - we should instead be campaigning - and as loudly as possible - for an improvement in funding for research into causes and treatments for dementia and for the appropriate support services to be put in place for those affected and their families. Funding for research into the causes and treatments of Alzheimer’s is minimal. Access to invaluable treatment is also exceptionally limited. NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) guidelines recommend that only people in the moderate stages of the illness receive the appropriate medication.
The ability to keep someone’s memories and ability to function alive is not, according to NICE, worth £2.50 a day. The availability of carers and support is limited - with resources stretched to the absolute limit so that families caring for someone with Alzheimer’s do take on the bulk of care for their loved ones - sometimes feeling as if they are out on their own.
Surely the humane response to all this is to take a more serious approach to the treatment and care of Alzheimer’s patients and make decent respite care readily available. In the UK 700,000 people suffer from dementia. This number will rise with the growing age of the population. None of us knows how we will end our days or what support we will need in the end stages of our lives - so how any of us can stand callously back and not rile up against this woman and her vile beliefs is beyond me.
People with dementia are not easy to live with or care for. It is hard, especially for those responsible for the bulk of the care. There is nothing more devastating that being stared at blankly by a face that used to welcome you warmly to their house, or to watch that same face fade away - from the inside out - through one of life’s most cruel conditions. But that does not take away the humanity of dementia sufferers and we leave our humanity behind entirely if we start picking off the weak and infirm. It may start, as Baroness Warnock has suggested, with those with dementia - but where will it end? Will we pick away and pick away until only a master race remain? We cannot and must not let this happen. For all our sakes.

3 comments:

Fionnuala said...

Wow Claire, a very serious post and one I know is close to your heart. I whole heartedly agree. Fx

KAREN said...

I couldn't agree more - beautifully put.

Maybe in the animal world it's all about the survival of the fittest, but what separates us from animals is our humanity...or so I thought.

Evie said...

Hear hear.

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