The politics of death in America

My grandfather is dying.

Truth be told, like so many elderly folk in America, he’s been dying for a few years now.

This time though, he’s ready. Really, really, beyond ready.

Unfortunately, he needs help – or at least permission – in order to die.

His wife passed a year or so ago, and as best as we can tell, after his stroke he was mostly staying alive for her.

With her gone, and his friends gone… Well aside from the joy he gets from swearing, he just doesn’t have a whole lot left.

He hasn’t been able to walk, or talk – beyond the swearing and “good, good, good” – since his stroke. He lives in a nursing home where he can’t make friends because he can’t DO anything. His body doesn’t work. His mind does, but he can’t express it anymore. He’s just trapped in this weird rotting prison cell of a body.

And, he’d like to get out now.

He’s done his time, and if there was a parole board, I’m sure he’d make the cut for saintly behavior.

But… There is no parole board for life. In fact, in this country we have the opposite. The “parole board” here will fight beyond your last breath to keep you alive, often whether you want them to or not.

A couple of years ago my father’s mom died.

She too had been trying for a few years. She’d signed all the DNRs, she’d told her children her wishes, she’d begged them not to give her antibiotics when the pneumonia came. She was ready. Despite not being very religious, she had always believed that when she died, she would see her husband again. He’d been gone for over 30 years, and she was ready.

Despite her wishes, both written and verbal, the staff at her nursing home fought to keep her alive time and time again.

Why? Because as long as she was alive, they were making money off of her.

It’s a sick system, when people make money off prolonging other people’s suffering – and call it compassionate care!

A couple of years later, my mother’s mom – my grandfather’s wife – took ill. My grandfather had already had his stroke, so they went into assisted care together.

Now, this particular grandmother, well, she’d been done living for a couple of decades at this point. (If you define living as getting up in the morning, getting dressed and doing at least one thing before going back to bed again.) At the same time, like her mother before her, she wasn’t interested in dying. There were plenty of shows on TV, and as long as there was still wine in the bottle and brandy in the glass – what the hay, might as well stick around and see if something exciting happened.

She continued her sedentary “life” at the nursing home. Somehow, she sprung a leak inside her leg and the blood started pooling.

She went septic.

She was old, weak, tired and in very poor health and very poor physical shape (not moving for 30 years will do that.) She should have been allowed to die, with her last shreds of dignity, and with her husband present.

Instead, her caregivers at the home, above the objections of my mother and her brother, opted to amputate my grandmother’s leg at a cost of $90,000, in a futile and painful attempt at saving the life of a woman who had given up long before I was born.

My grandmother died, alone and in pain. And my grandfather wasn’t even able to say goodbye.

But hey, the doctors and staff got their $90,000. Besides, weren’t they duty bound to try everything in their power to prolong my grandmother’s life?

My husband is also watching this strange American death saga play out with his grandmothers.

One lives alone, her husband passed before I joined the family, her daughter lives out-of-state, her son out of the country. She was convinced to battle an auto-immune kidney disease, lost all her hair and half her weight. She is now so frail that she broke her back trying to remove the umbrella from the picnic table in her yard. She is forgetful, sometimes going days without eating because she just… doesn’t remember to do it.

Her son and daughter recently ambushed her, trying to convince her to sell her home and move into assisted living. She refused. She would really like to die right where she is. And if that means that she takes an ugly fall, or dies peacefully in her sleep and isn’t found for a few days, she doesn’t seem too bothered by that prospect.

If she goes into a home, she knows she will no longer be her own person. She will no longer have the right to die. She will be at their mercy, and they have none.

I blame the HUGE industry that has taken over end-of-life care. I blame a system based not on compassion or death with dignity and pride, but on the directive to prolong life at all costs including the mental, physical, spiritual and emotional well-being of our loved ones.

I am a firm believer in the right to die with dignity, the right to die with our boots on. But… our culture doesn’t seem to support this. Unless you die young, while you still have full control over your body and your wits, you end up living at the behest of your children or your caregivers.

We all die. It’s the one thing we can count on once we are born – no one gets out of this alive.

I don’t know how to change the mind-set or re-write the policy so that we can talk about death as a normal, natural part of life. I don’t know how to assure my elderly that they’ve done their part. They’ve earned their parole. They can go – whenever they’re ready. We’re all fine. We’ve got the next round.

Our elderly, and chronically ill, shouldn’t have to fight, and beg, and struggle to be allowed to put down their burdens, let go of the reigns and find their peace.

If we have a right to life, surely, we have a right to death – on our terms and in our time. Whether it’s death by adrenaline (pick me) or death by old age, no one should have the right to keep us alive after we choose to tap out.

This saga is playing out all across America as the “Greatest Generation” ages and becomes infirm. Technology has expanded to the point that we can prolong their lives almost indefinitely. But at what cost?

If there’s a chance to help someone die the way they lived – on their terms, with a little dignity – isn’t that far more compassionate than keeping them alive one more day just so you can line your pockets with their suffering?

So – here’s to my grandfather. My hero. The man all other men in my life have had to live up to.

Here’s hoping he’s allowed to die.

Here’s wishing for a miracle.

Erv Ott's Guide Service made the cover of Michigan Snowmobile News every year until his stroke! He also invented a new spring sport - snowmobiles vs. jetskis across Lake Superior! He was one hardcore hero!

Erv Ott’s Guide Service made the cover of Michigan Snowmobile News every year until his stroke!
He also invented a new spring sport – snowmobiles vs. jetskis across Lake Superior! He was one hardcore hero!

Grandpa – sending all my love and peace to you. We’re on your side. We’re “good, good, good.” and so are you. Give ’em hell.



Filed under Rant

9 responses to “The politics of death in America

  1. mmeller

    I firmly believe people should be allowed to die with dignity or fight it every step if the way, whichever is *their* choice.

    My grandmother died 11 years ago. She was 80, but in good health and active until a final illness. She lived at home until that illness landed her in the hospital. After a month in ICU, when an infection started spreading and her chance of recovery disappeared, we asked the hospital to remove her from the ventilator. We had her living will which explicitly stated what she wanted. My mom was the one with the power to make the decision, but she and her 3 brothers made it together, with the support of the rest of the family.

    The doctors didn’t question it. As many of us as we’re able came to the hospital to be with her in those last moments, including 2 of her very good friends from grade school (!!). There was no limit on visitors for that.

    The doctors, nurses and other staff were incredibly respectful. Maybe because it was a hospital and not a nursing home, where they have an incentive to keep bodies alive.

    My mom currently works for a company that helps keep the elderly in their homes by assisting them with chores and errands. No medical stuff, but some are capable of staying at home if they have help cleaning, doing laundry, a ride to the grocery store…. Sometimes solutions like that are good. They allow autonomy. And the possibility of hospice care.

    Death doesn’t have to be traumatic. It can be faced with dignity.

    • Exactly.
      It can be faced with dignity, and I wish that for everyone.
      We’ve tried to convince my husband’s grandmother to get someone to stop by her house and help out a little, either once a day or once a week, whatever – but so far she is being stubborn there too.
      Part of it is that her family hired people from the nursing community and then she would ask them to take care of some yard work and they would balk. Her response, “Well, what am I paying you for then?”
      I think she needs/wants a yard person and a house cleaner. She wants everyone to ignore her age and failing health, that’s not her focus, she’d like it if it wasn’t theirs either.
      As for my grandfather, because of his stroke, he’s just trapped. He was actively trying to die with his boots on when that hit him. His story has made me change my own end of life plans. Let’s just say, I’ll be going on my Thelma and Louise trip a littler earlier than I originally planned!!

  2. Kristin

    Bless you and your Grandpa. May you both find peace.

  3. sk8eycat

    We treat our pets better than we do humans. I recently had to have one of my cats euthanized, and I’m still mourning him, but trying to keep him alive would have been the height of cruelty.

    We need an ASPCA for people.

    Is there no form of hospice care available for your grandfather? I don’t know if MedicareLess pays for that, but ALL they do is make sure the patient is comfortable; they don’t try to “cure” anything. It IS all about dying with dignity.

    IMO physician-assisted suicide ought to be legalized for EVERYONE who wants it, whether or not they have a painful terminal illness. There can be safeguards so that people aren’t done away with against their will…for the inheritance, for instance. (A friend of mine “ate a shotgun” last year because her life had become unbearable…. but she was considered “healthy” by the idiots at Kaiser, so they sent her home. Alone..)

    As I said, we give our pets that gift; why not ourselves? But, NO! Our legislators are too busy saving unwanted embryos when there are children being shoved from foster home to foster home, or living on the streets.

    We ARE living in “The Crazy Years.”

  4. omtatjuan

    Excellent discription of your elders passing. You are a great writer!

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