A view at the end of life
Watching the slow, inevitable decline in the health of an aging parent is never easy, and so Martin West, Artsci’83, MA’89, argues that as a society we need to rethink how we view the approach of death.
It all started about two years ago, when my aging father, Robert “Bud” West, BSc’50 – who was 87 at the time – stopped taking his daily walks. “Come on,” I urged him via long distance calls, “Keep exercising. You’ll live longer.”
He then neglected to get his dentures resized, and so he could no longer eat solid food. “You have to eat properly, Dad. I want you around,” I told him.
He refused to get hearing aids (“Too much paperwork,” he said), and his clothing withered on his shrinking body. A year went by, and I made several long trips to visit him. My dad was still hanging in there, and I was pleased. Then suddenly, just after this Christmas, he aged years overnight and was confined to bed.
“A pathetic existence,” I remarked to my sister who regularly looked in on him and reported that he simply slept most of the day. But slowly a realization dawned on me: there was nothing pathetic about what was happening. Something very simple, natural and uncompromising was unfolding: My dad was at the end of his life.
However, my previous attitude fought back. If only he’d kept walking, got those false teeth fixed, and kept eating. If only he’d overcome his defeatist “I’m old and my life is over now” attitude, he could be around for more Christmas dinners, so I could visit him.
But, really, what would it matter? One more year. Or five more. Sooner or later the end of life would come, and it just happened to arrive now. This was not about future enjoyable Christmas dinners for me. The path my dad was on now was all about him. He was as helpless, innocent, and self-centred as a baby. And that was his right.
Perhaps I was feeling guilty for having lived away for years and now realizing that it was too late. Soon after my dad went to the care home, a sentimental pang arose within me. I wanted to make another long distance call to him while he could still understand: “Thanks Dad! Thanks for marrying my single mom when I was three and giving me a better chance to make something of my life.”
Emotion overcame me, and tears even welled up in my eyes. But I didn’t make the call. What difference would my sentiments make? I could have said my piece any time over many years. It was now the end of his life. It was too late.
His needs were simple now. Again, think baby. Then I really started to ponder. Being far away in another town, my only role was to watch from a distance and adjust my naive attitude accordingly. Having never experienced this before, all I had to go on were media images. They didn’t amount to much. Betty White popped into my head. Why did I relate to her? Precisely because it seems she’ll go on forever and nothing about her image suggests the end of life. The media excel at broadcasting tragic, terrible, and accidental deaths. But the natural end of life? That’s off the radar, and it’s too bad.
As our society ages, countless Canadian families will go through this. Perfectly healthy and mentally competent parents will come to the end of life … perhaps even with no drugs, no suffering, and no pain. You will grieve, but will avoid excessive sentimentalizing. If you’ve been away for years, you’ve missed your chance to return and make up for it. So except for ensuring the necessities of your loved one’s reduced life, stay back and watch quietly. Put your needs and feelings aside. It’s only about them.
Finally, my dad was frustrated that he could not choose to end his life soon after he became immobile in early January 2013. He was robbed of the few activities that fulfilled him – painting, bridge, and discussion groups. Fully comprehending the current legislation, he resigned himself to being a prisoner of his inert and quickly aging body. Did society or the medical profession benefit from this? Nevertheless, perhaps ironically, over these final three months I awoke from my uninformed slumber and became enlightened about what the end of life is.
But, again, the conclusion of my dad’s life was not in any way about me. It was in every way about him.