In 1979, I was going to college, working part time and raising three teenagers by myself, but I also found time to do some volunteer work at nursing homes. I wrote this letter to “Victimology: An International Journal” and they published it in their Open Forum section in Volume 4, Number 4, 1979.
The Right to Die
To the Editors
I’m a student of psychology and have spent some time talking to elderly patients in convalescent homes. This letter is a compilation of many conversations about how they look at their lives and their deaths. I’ve written it as one of them might write a letter to her doctor.
Granted there is a growing number of senior citizens who find there is life after 65, but there is a greater number hidden away in these homes who see no reason to go on living. Many of them are confined to their beds– alone and totally at the mercy of unfeeling attendants– merely breathing until they die. The question they raise (Why won’t they put me to sleep?) is controversial and brings up thoughts of “Soylent Green”– but it’s coming from them and I feel it needs to be talked about.
Dear Doctor . . .
Instead of all these medicines and treatments, why don’t you just give me that pill? The one that will put me to sleep and take away all my pain. Why do you insist on keeping me alive and suffering? What did I do to deserve this punishment?
I raised my children the best way I knew how and I’m proud of them and of myself as a parent. I loved my husband the best I could and we had a good life. I was proud of my singing voice, but I felt I was imposing myself on others with it. I never felt I deserved success so I used my talent to help others. I helped raise a lot of money to help a lot of people. I didn’t do it for money, I did it for the joy it brought me– and now my voice is all but gone. Gone, just like everything else I once had– my family, my friends, my home, my legs …
Your medicine can’t help me anymore. There is no cure around the corner for what’s wrong with me. I’m weary and I want to rest. My children have their own lives. I know they love me, but they don’t need me anymore and there isn’t anything I could do for them if they did. I’m more in their way and they’re left feeling guilty because they don’t make more time for me– yet, when they do come to visit, what is there to say? Why all this heartache? Better they should hold on to the memory of me as a thinking, loving, active person than as a complaining old lady of a vegetable attached to a tube. My body is of little use to me anymore. I never even considered I might someday become paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair. I never thought about being old, only getting old. Now I dread the thought that my mind will soon go, too. It’s part of the reality we learn to face here. I know soon that what I see happening to the others in this home where people wait to die will start happening to me. I’ll lose control of what they do to me, of what they take from me, of how they treat me.
These “homes” profit by keeping us barely alive. They exist because of our children’s guilt and because of society’s maniacal belief that a human being must be kept alive at all costs. All our lives we’re told to take responsibility for ourselves, yet when it comes to our own death, that responsibility is taken away.
The amount of money it would cost to keep me alive for another year, I would gladly give them today to take away my pain. Let them study what went wrong with my brain, my muscles, my glands, with the hope it will keep someone else from suffering as I am. Give me a chance to do one last good deed. Keeping me alive is no help to anyone. I want to die with my dignity still in tact.
Even my children won’t let me go. I gave them their freedom when they wanted it, but they won’t give me mine. They’re not being kind by forcing me to hang on no matter how bare the thread. I’m the one who’s in pain. I feel it’s cruel to keep me living with it. I don’t deserve this.
Has anyone ever asked the aged how we feel about the right to die? You can’t ask the ones who have already lapsed into a state of living death whether or not they want to be kept alive, but you can ask those of us who exist just the other side of oblivion. Are you saying we’re not capable of making that decision for ourselves after all the experience we’ve had making decisions? The aged were once considered wise, now we’re doddering old fools who are senile and don’t know what we’re talking about. How can anyone make that judgment for someone else? You haven’t experienced what I’ve experienced … you don’t feel the pain and the loneliness I feel.
Have you ever walked down the corridors in one of these homes and listened to us? “Help me … please, someone help me … get me out of here …mamamamamamamamamamama … please don’t hurt me …” Did you ever look into our eyes and see the pleading? We reach out and grab onto your hand and beg you to help … and you turn away, embarrassed.
There are so few nurses, aides and orderlies who actually care about us. Most are callous and bitter, for good reasons I’m sure– but what gives them the right to take it out on us? They can get away with almost anything– who’s going to take the word of a deluded old woman against a nurse (who secretly harbors a dual personality behind her patronizing smile)? They take their frustrations out on their helpless charges, and their anger out on those of us brave enough to protest their unfair treatment. We can’t win– sooner or later we lose control because we lose our minds.
The administration raises the cost to the patient and cuts down on services to the patient in order to meet rising costs. To cut costs they hire people who can’t speak English or who don’t know how to handle paralyzed, incapacitated, senile and, above all, lonely human beings. They pay them as little as possible and give them as much work as possible– and they get back as little as possible from them. Why? Because they have too many problems of their own trying to make ends meet to have any compassion left over for us. I complain and they make promises– but nothing changes.
Society allows this to happen to us by closing its eyes and pretending we don’t exist– but it won’t let us go when we want to. Which is the greater cruelty?
My biggest regret is that I never did anything just for me. I kept putting it off thinking there’d be time. I never thought I’d end up here … left with nothing but another day of pain to look forward to. There’s one thing left I can do for me– but no one will let me do it. There’s no one willing to care for me. I pay for it, yet I don’t feel cared for, merely maintained. Well, doctor, I don’t want to be maintained anymore. I’m at peace and I look forward to my death, whatever that means. I want to rest now … I want that pill.
Long Beach, California