MY NINETY YEAR OLD MOTHER, like so many of our elderly, is now languishing in a “memory
facility” in Oregon. She is overweight, unable to walk, and slowly losing her mind. Dementia has changed her once sweet and amiable personality into someone largely unrecognizable to those who have known and loved her.
In the same way, my beloved mother in law suffered a stroke in her eighties. Modern technology was able to “bring her back” from a situation that would have killed her forty years ago . She lived five more years, but her physical condition was miserable. She was unable to talk, walk, or toilet herself. We were glad for one thing. It was a time when my wife, Judy, was able to share the gospel with her, but her quality of life was almost unbearable.
Modern medicine is wonderful, but it has one drawback. Sometimes it allows us to live longer than we want. The treatment of our aged is a subject largely ignored, but it is one that is in great need of vigorous discussion.
In his New York Times best selling book, Being Mortal, Atul Gawande, a surgeon, had done us all a favor. He opens with these words. “I learned about a lot of things in medical school, but mortality wasn’t one of them. Although I was given a dry, leathery corpse to dissect in my first term, that was solely a way to learn about human anatomy. Our textbooks had almost nothing on aging or frailty or dying. How the process unfolds, how people experience the end of their lives, and how it affects those around them seemed beside the point. The way we saw it, and the way our professors saw it, the purpose of medical schooling was to teach how to save lives, not how to tend to their demise.”The rest of his book remedies this void. He writes at a sufficiently sophisticated level to appeal to medical professionals. But, he also writes for the average lay man like myself.
I for one, I am thankful that Gawande has projected this crucial subject for public discussion. This book include the importance of educating more physicians in gerontology, the need to know when to give up and embrace hospice care, why the elderly are so depressed in nursing homes, etc. He writes well. At times I was moved to tears.
One disclaimer. Although he doesn’t like it, he is soft on the subject of physicians assisted suicide. But the good in this book greatly outweighs the bad. I heartily recommend it anyway.