Elderly people who die alone: what is the answer?

Elderly people who die alone: what is the answer? 

Professor Margaret Somerville tells the story of a conversation she once had with a Dutch Doctor who admitted euthanasing an elderly woman who's most significant problem was that she was desperately lonely. "Didn't anyone think to buy her a cat?" was Somerville's reply.

That might seem pretty obvious and, indeed it is; but it is also a reminder, in terms of this doctor and his decision to kill his patient, that the availability of euthanasia and assisted suicide as a legal option changes things.

Recently in South Australia the Coroner, Mark Johns, called for a discussion about this issue of elderly people dying alone. The context was the death of an elderly Adelaide man.

Johns told ABC News: "I have seen a number of instances where an elderly person makes a decision to end their life and the characteristics of these situations to me are loneliness, isolation, solitude."

While stressing that he was not advocating for euthanasia he also added, "By necessity these people have to be alone when they carry the act to end their own life because of the law that we all live under."

This is, of course, an unremarkable statement at one level. Yes, if anyone - not only the elderly �have plans to end their own lives, including a third person puts that person in some jeopardy in regards to the criminal code prohibitions on assisting in suicide.

Whilst the likes of Philip Nitschke are wont to observe a supposed anomaly that assisting in suicide is a criminal offence whereas the act of suicide is no longer a crime, this really misses the point. The law creates a natural pause: if we do 'x' then there are 'y' consequences. So, not only does it have a punitive function designed to protect people, it also has an educative role as what some might call a natural hurdle or roadblock.

These roadblocks are meant to help us seek a safer, legal alternative; to make us think. Remove these roadblocks and there's no need to think as Somerville's interaction with the Dutch doctor demonstrates.

The gentleman concerned is identified on the ABC article as Bob Brown; a member of the local pro-euthanasia lobby. (not to be confused with a former politician of that name) That alone would suggest that this gentleman had a settled view that when ailments beset him, he had chosen a course. Suicide will always retain a sense of taboo; something to be shunned, not encouraged. Again the prohibition on assisting supports this notion. That Mr Brown chose this course of action, whilst regrettable, is not at question here.

What is a significant problem is the characterisation for a political end of these kind of stories as being about people who were 'forced' into taking such measures because of the law. It's an emotional bait and switch that is made even more poignant by the media in the way that they describe said person's life and achievements. Would the story work as well if the person was an 'average Joe or Jill' or a convicted criminal? Probably not.

Frances Coombe, a senior member of the local pro-euthanasia lobby and friend of Mr Brown told the ABC, "The absence of euthanasia laws means people are acting earlier than they would otherwise, just to make sure they can go with dignity," she said. "It's shameful that Brownie (Mr Brown) was put in that position."

What position was that precisely? We know he was losing his eyesight due to macular degeneration which we should acknowledge is very difficult to cope with. But he and, we assume, he alone, decided not to deal with it but to suicide instead. No one forced him into that 'position'; nature dealt him a blow as it does with us all, but none of us are forced into such a radical and final solution. If there's any shame to be noted here perhaps it is the reflection that in our modern world older people can still be desperately lonely.

Given Mr Brown's membership of the euthanasia lobby, perhaps he had planned that his death would be used to push this cause. At the least, we can probably assume that he was happy that this might be the case. But, again, this betrays the two-faced nature of the euthanasia lobby that publicly supports legislation that has - at the beginning at least - limits to whom it applies, while their objectives are broader by far, because, in all the bills that have come before the South Australian Parliament, none would have included the possibility of Mr Brown's euthanasia death in his circumstances.

And so, Mr Brown left a letter for the state Coroner. Lobbying the Coroners in various states has been one of the strategies of the pro-euthanasia lobby for some time now. I imagine the argument goes that if the suicide deaths of elderly persons in such circumstances are statistically significant that the lobby will have an additional arrow to fire in pursuit of their goal.

Having noted that, we should have no objection to the collection of accurate data on suicide and its causes. The more we know, the more we can focus preventative measures. It would indeed be interesting to note just how many people are obtaining the means to suicide through certain internet sources.

Over all of this, the use of the idea that Mr Brown or anyone else is 'forced' into suicide, or 'forced' to do it alone, or 'forced' to suicide early before a disease takes them, is nonsense. If someone were to say that they were 'forced' to move overseas because the Australian tax rates were too high, we would instinctively think that the word 'forced' did not apply and was being used to justify what is ultimately a personal decision.

The pro-euthanasia lobby want you and me to consider this bluster effectively as a 'force majeure': an external unremitting force of circumstance that creates a necessary breach of contract (in this case, the Criminal Code). It's a 'blame shifter'. It's the kind of thing children say their parents: 'Daddy, he MADE me do it!' Parents know how frustrating this can be, but they also have the expectation that their children will grow up.