An important article in the Washington Post should trigger some thoughts. As the article explains:
But a study released Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests the answers may be surprising: The reasons patients gave for wanting to end their lives had more to do with psychological suffering than physical suffering.
The study, based on information from Canada’s University Health Network in Toronto, represents all 74 people who inquired about assistance in dying from March 2016 to March 2017. Most were white and were diagnosed with cancer or a neurological disorder like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“It’s what I call existential distress,” explained researcher Madeline Li, an associate professor at University of Toronto. “Their quality of life is not what they want. They are mostly educated and affluent — people who are used to being successful and in control of their lives, and it’s how they want their death to be. . . . One of the main things these patients bring up has to do with “autonomy.” It’s a broad philosophical concept that has to do with being able to make your own decisions, not being dependent on others, wanting to be able to enjoy the things you enjoy and wanting dignity.
The article cites several other studies that come to similar conclusions. My first thoguht that the pain issue is easy to grasp, and a clear and dramatic focus of fear for anyone who thinks about it. My own, perhaps overoptimistic view, is that it is a very rare case in which pain can not be satisfactorily managed provided you have access to the right experts.
But it is not the case that giving people a reason to want to live is viable for everyone. It depends on the person, on what gives them identity, purpose and satisfaction. If that is taken away, why on earth stay here, unless you are forced to.
When my sister, back in 1977, when given the news that (at 25) she was indeed dying of melanoma, and quickly, she asked our family physician what would happen if she asked for help dying. His response has stayed with me all my life: “That would mean we had failed you.”
That response works at the pain level, but it obviously works at the purpose and satisfaction level. I would suggest that those dealing with those of us in decline should think about how to start conversations on what provides that satisfaction — and what might provide it as capacities decline. Hopefully there is then time to learn to take please from things that have not previously given the same pleasure or purpose.
Indeed, the earlier the discussion starts, the better, and it should not be put off until the only short term outcome is death.