On Wednesday, Le Monde published an article in which 156 MPs call on the government to legislate on euthanasia and assisted suicide before the end of 2018. Béatrix Paillot is a geriatric doctor who spoke to Gènéthique.
As a geriatric doctor, I am both shocked and devastated to hear about the current pressures in France to enforce legislation allowing an individual to die before his/her life naturally comes to an end.
End of life: back to basics
My personal and professional experience has shown me that this is a dreadful illusion. We are led to believe that elderly dependants are a burden on society and that our lives would be much happier without them. But the opposite is true, because vulnerable people remind us of what life is all about. They show us that human life is fulfilled not through doing but by being. The more we learn about opening up freely to others by taking care of them in their vulnerable state, and the more we find out about ourselves, the easier it will be to discover a meaning to our personal and social life. Hence it is said that the humanity of a society is measured according to its ability to take care of the weak and vulnerable. If the elderly or disabled are deemed to be a burden to society, we kill them symbolically and drive them to commit suicide.
One day, an elderly lady came to me for a consultation: “I’ve written a letter and given a copy to all of my children. I’ve told them that if I become heavily dependent on them one day, I want to take advantage of the assisted suicide option in Switzerland”. Since she had just informed me that, for many years, she had taken care of her mother who had Alzheimer’s disease, I asked her, “Did you find it hard to look after your mother for all that time given that she depended on you so much?” She replied, “Oh no, of course not! It was a particularly close period for us both when we were able to say very important things to each other. And I have been so sad since she died. Oh, no – I don’t regret all the years I spent looking after her although there were some difficult times along the way”. So, I said: “And so now you want to deprive your children of the chance to express their affection for you if you become ill one day?” And I went on to add, “You know, it’s often in the final moments of life that we deliver the strongest messages to our nearest and dearest, the shining lights that have brightened up our lives and that can help younger members of the family to discover a meaning to their lives. Sometimes it’s when we see the courage and affectionate smile of our grandmother, struggling with declining health, that we realise that every life is worth living. Love is stronger than any form of human poverty and transcends extreme situations. In my experience, disabled people have a lot to give – far more than they take from others”. The consultation ended there and I saw the same lady a few weeks later to pass on her test results. At the end of the consultation, she said to me, “You know, I want to thank you for what you said to me last time. I have destroyed the letter I wrote and feel much happier and freer inside. I almost made a big mistake”.
Old age: a glowing opportunity
In my opinion, no dependent person places a burden on society but provides an opportunity to develop our concept and understanding of human love. The elderly have a sense of freedom, tenderness and genuine wisdom inextricably linked with an array of human experiences that constantly bring us back to basics and to what matters in the end, after everything that life throws at us. A chance encounter with an elderly person enriches us and makes us better individuals. Perhaps they “can’t do anything” any more, but in terms of being, they have a wealth of experience to share. It’s not a case of looking at what they once were (which would generate a false sense of pity), but seeing them as they always are – people worthy of the utmost respect and esteem.
I have been very touched by such wonderful encounters. This is a typical example. One day, an elderly lady with Parkinson’s disease came to see me. She could no longer walk and was brought to the practice in a transfer chair by paramedics. I had to test her memory but seeing that she was half asleep in her chair, I wondered how I was going to be able to do it. Once she was sitting opposite my desk, I said, “Hello, how are you?” She opened an eye and said: “Well, what good am I in this state?” Sorry for what was happening to her, I answered: “And your morale?” She said: “Well, I spend my days banishing evil thoughts”. I said: “That’s good! Not everyone spends their time banishing evil thoughts!” She opened both eyes and looked at me. Her face looked incredibly peaceful. It was very soothing for me watching her. I said to her, “I see a lot of peace in your face. You must do such a lot of good for those people around you in your retirement home. You know, a lot of people don’t have peace of mind, even healthcare professionals. You must do a lot of good for those who come into contact with you”. At that very moment, she started to smile. It was as if, in an instant, she had discovered the meaning of life. It touched me so much because she rediscovered joy after realising she had a purpose in life. She left feeling very happy with the consultation.
As you can see, sometimes it doesn’t take much to help an elderly, dependent person rediscover the meaning of life. We must not deprive them of this time in their lives when they can give us the very best of themselves and their life experiences.
And the very sick?
Even patients with Alzheimer’s disease give us more than we can imagine. Of course they need to be reminded of the same thing, over and over again, and behavioural problems can sometimes make them difficult to live with on a daily basis. But at other times, they exemplify the human heart at its best. They have an inherent intelligence that always allows them to understand the reality of a given situation up to a certain point. They have the freedom to accept or refuse treatment depending on whether the caregiver is gentle or sharp in their approach. They have a language that speaks right from the heart and is reflected in tender gestures. One sick lady rubbed my hands to warm them up because she thought they were cold. A nurse told me that, one day, she was not doing very well because she having a difficult time in her private life. On arriving at work that day, she didn’t think she had the strength to start her shift. She went to a room at the back of the ward. It was occupied by a lady with Alzheimer’s disease. She squatted down beside her and placed her head on the old lady’s chest saying, “You know, I’m not very well today, you’ll have to comfort me”. And the old lady held her to her chest. The nurse told me that all of her sadness faded within a few moments and she was able to start her day as if nothing had happened. She had just experienced genuine healing from within following this affectionate gesture by a lady with Alzheimer’s disease.
“So, I beg you, let live those who have so much more to give!” They can teach us to discover or rediscover the true meaning of life. They teach us to act humbly and show us the way to the heart.