Time to Put Mom On An Ice FloePosted by Jim Newman on April 20th, 2012 – Comments Off – Posted in atheists
Post by Jim Newman
At the risk of sounding insensitive, it’s time my mother moved on, fertilized the garden so to speak. Like the movie North, rated one of the worst movies ever, where Abe Vigoda is set on an ice floe, others have a TV, a battery, and a rocking chair, by Graham Greene and Kathy Bates. It cracked me up. Of course it’s a black comedy against senilicide and how pride creates false sensibilities.
Senilicide has been practiced by many people over time in many cultures. Often, in indigenous cultures elderly people basically stop eating and will themselves to death. We tend to place this in utilitarian terms so we can understand it—they are no longer useful, they can’t contribute, they are too much of a burden on society, the larger group had no choice because of survival issues. However, we then turn and consider it normative, not just materially utilitarian, to accept other cruelty—like “thou shalt not kill” except all those exceptions where it is virtuous to kill, apostasy, etc.
I do not understand the very Judeo-Christian-Islamic idea to preserve life at all costs until the very last neuron finally stops firing. It’s so ingrained in our culture that it’s considered Western but it’s really an extension of modern religious sensibilities.
My mother has level IV dementia. She is starting to have seizures, falls several times a week, and two days ago she had to go into a dementia-serving nursing home. My sister basically quit her job, took early SS retirement so she could provide full time care, and lived with her for the preceding six months. Mom can go several days, near comatose, unresponsive, stareing through you.
The irony of the child who fought so long and hard with her parent and then cares for her so deeply in old age does not escape me. We went through her old papers and it is easy to replace memories. Easy to think of Mom in Sienna, Italy receiving lessons in music theory from Andres Segovia while he bounced my sister on his lap with his magnificently large hands. Of Bach seminars with Nadia Boulanger. Of good times with Guido Agoste and Hans Haug Of an illicit affair with Warren Foster, the cartoonist who wrote Tweety’s theme song “I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat.” The good, the bad, the what is.
Generally, there should be less stratification in society. I can’t blame religion for the industrialization and commodification of modern culture, well maybe I can but not this post, but I will blame religion for encouraging us to breed like flies and keep them alive until they rot.
I am not sure that even conscious incapacity is the dividing line. Anger and meanness to the point of dysfunction is too common in senility. Drug after drug is employed to calm them down, make them pliable, or prevent them from hurting themselves or someone else. Then they are so drugged out they fall easily or sleep all of the time.
There are some many types of dementia that you can’t tell which by symptoms. In the elderly no one diagnoses types beyond a few. Brain scans, biopsy, and autopsy can help ascertain cause but in the old there is little point to it other than coarse differences like Alzheimer’s, or frontotemporal lobar degeneration, tumor, cancer, infections, or metabolic failure, maybe something fixable—which drug to use.
The Gates of Vienna blog has an article on geronticide. It predicts, in very utilitarian terms, that unless countries with boomer agers, disproportionate in their ratio of old to young, resort to immigrating young people, there will be a huge social and economic cost to supporting the old. So large that by necessity governments will modify health care and social values to survive. Of course, it is possible that a country clings to its ideology to its economic demise as well. They threaten democracy will collapse to autocracy to coerce geronticide for economic disparity—the rich will regulate the dieing
I am less interested in this aspect then in the humaneness of keeping people alive beyond their desire. Insisting that suicide intention or desire is by definition illegal and a sign of insanity. I see that train coming and it’s here and now that we could lay groundwork.
Recently, a founder of Oregan’s Death with Dignity Act, Dr Peter Goodwin, committed suicide. In Oregan the main reason has been cancer, a disease so strong that positive thinking and the placebo effect have little power. The George Bush administration fought the bill but it was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2006.
Last month, Elizabeth Barrett, 65, was arrested for assisting an 85 year old, Jack Koency commit suicide. She faces 3 years in prison. Jack had prearranged for his ashes to be spread and had investigated euthanasia associations before soliciting her help.
My sister and her friend both of whom have been elderly caregivers are clear they do not wish to be the same burden to their friends and relatives. While they insist that they are happy they did what they did, they also insist that they do not wish this imposition on someone else, especially their families.
Would that we could all go in our sleep after sex like the stories of Peter Sellers’ various heart attacks. Sex, Amyl Nitrates, and a bad heart he wouldn’t fix until it was too late.
Emotional maturity is difficult in a society divided by alienation and religious domination. Who can forget the Terri Shiavo case where a women went into a vegetative state, a coma, but moving her to a hospice, removing her feeding tube was in the eyes of many murder. So strongly popular among religious and disability rights groups that George Bush himself went to DC to sign legislation against it. In the end the courts prevailed and she stayed in hospice. If you don’t have a living will, do one now—right away. Scratch it out on a napkin if need be. Anything can help.
In ethics’ class it’s easy to resort to last minute deus ex machine scenarios—what if they recover? There always seems to be one case where someone miraculously recovers. As if that defines normative.
The other argument is of principle. Kind of like the early Star Trek show where the alien will kill all unless one member goes. Kirk refuses on principle that sacrificing one to save many sets a pernicious and presumably infecting principle—if you do it once, it’s easier to do it again. He then decides if anyone is to go it should be him the Captain, the most valued member. This appeals to the aliens and they let every one go and have beers. It’s an oft repeated story. As if aliens gave a shit about our morals.
The Lifeboat Dilemma by Garret Hardin, who happened to commit suicide with his wife in their old age, 88 and 81, as members of the old Hemlock Society (she had ALS), concerns a disaster where there are more people in the water than the lifeboat can hold. How do you determine who gets in? Do you also go over the lifeboat capacity? How close? When does the risk of capsizing supersede the compassion to save as many as you can? My wife hates to teach this. She finds it horrible. But it is the anniversary of the Titanic so it is still pertinent. Luckily, it’s a rare situation and not normative.
Or is it? It is classic that people will not decide and will allow bad things to happen rather than do a bad thing to stop it. That is, people will not kill to save lives but will allow more to die in their passivity. It’s the Trolley Dilemma. Rather than kill one man to save five, by switching the tracks so the trolley veers and kills one man, saving the five on the track, many people would let the trolley proceed. Classic passive aggression.
If you consider the earth as a lifeboat then it gets more interesting. Hardin’s last book “The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia” (1999) warns about the threat of overpopulation to the Earth’s sustainability. He calls for constraints against unqualified reproductive rights. He also calls against the desire for exponential economic growth in a finite system, calling capitalists “growthmaniacs.”
“Concerns for the environment cannot be separated from the problems of altruism”
as well as
“Having accepted disease control, the people [of poor countries] must now accept population control”
“A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero”
“Exponential growth is kept under control by misery.”
I raise this panoply of quotes to show how by our desire to be altruistic we can harm what we love. Religion by insisting that god will care for us, by insisting that god knows our limits, by living as passive and submissive beings under care of a cosmic shepherd, we do more harm than good. Lenny in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” pets his pet mouse to death, in love, devoid of emotional maturity.
Our lack of desire to make harsh and difficult decisions by using the excuse to follow the sacred, as if it weren’t sacred money, in the end is harmful. The thinker loses self respect and confidence for some small bit of comfort and the result is a worse situation requiring what may become impossible-to-resolve consequences.
Jared Diamond in “Collapse” speaks of how well-intentioned people go astray for an ideology, a sacred money, and develop a self perpetuating infrastructure that can’t be supported over time. Leaving the big and little decisions to god because they are uncomfortable or because we have no clear answer is throwing the answer away.
For mom, I do not see a quality of life she wants. She can’t ask for termination which is illegal anyway.
I tease my sister that we are part of the poison ring club but I wonder if we would be aware enough to care by the time we should do it. We need some help from our friends. Maybe I will practice yogic starvation to be ready and not say a damned thing.
Aside from my family, I see this big train coming down the tracks with an aging population and it is going to be a big religious and political battle with very little rational consideration.
I am in the midst of the Boomers, at 54, so my time is coming. If you see me drooling in the streets, run my ass over, and say I jumped.
Jim Newman, bright and well
www.brightpride.com and www.frontiersofreason.com