I have never been someone who thought much about death and dying.
Other than my sister and her husband losing a young child almost 40 years ago, I have not lived the intimate experience of losing an immediate family member. My father will be 94 in July and my mother 91 in August. Both are as well as their age allows.
I know many people who have aging parents close to and in their 90s and we share the concerns of trying to help figure out with our parents, and with other family members, what’s best in terms of residency and care. It’s all new to me. My childhood memories are limited in experiencing elderly grandparents.
Two of my grandparents died in their 60s, another at 72, and I don’t recall anyone saying they died young. Many people died in their 60s then – while today it is a rarity. The parameters have changed. As the numbers clearly indicate, old today means really old.
Those of you who have experienced spending time in a seniors’ residence where there are many people in their 90s know what is involved. There is the obvious reality of old age. Get near or over 90 and the body or the mind, or both, just can’t do it anymore. For many elderly, the determination is there in their souls, but the impediments are huge. Being 90 is a full-time job.
Seeing so many people in one place so compromised is always like a kick in the belly. You never get past it. It is the emotion of feeling helpless because there is not a lot anyone can do to make things much better. It is about managing to keep things together for as long as possible. It is a world where the status quo beats the alternative.
When you get past the obvious limiting realities of daily life, you begin to see the beauty of elderly people’s battles to push forward and live on. You wonder where that determination comes from and you learn it is the beautiful human instinct of never giving up on life. Part of that is purely physical, even gravely ill human beings fight to keep breathing. It is remarkable how very old people focus on tomorrow.
We live at a time when extended life is often a medical miracle that can’t and won’t be undone. And we are entering a phase of uncharted waters as the first baby boomers will begin to turn 90 just 20 years from now in 2036.
The numbers are overwhelming. Where will the space be? Where will the care come from? The system can barely cope now, so how will it cope with three times the number of 90-year-olds in less than 25 years from now?
There are no good answers to those questions. For someone my age, it is not a good subject to contemplate, so we tend to try not to think about it. But, of course, we do and thinking about it can be quite horrifying.
I have been fortunate in my life to have witnessed a lot and, like many journalists, I have a thick layer of protective cynicism that usually spares me from being shocked. So, when I am shocked, I am not just shocked, I am also shaken.
A few weeks ago, I was surfing channels and came across the Radio-Canada national newscast. A report caught my attention because it was about caring for elderly people, specifically the question of the new law in Quebec pertaining to doctor-assisted death. On the forefront of euthanasia legislation in Canada, the Quebec government has moved the debate to reality.
The report featured two doctors who said the Quebec government was no longer making new investments in palliative care, despite the growing need for new places and more resources. The doctors came right out and said it. The Quebec government had decided that in a cash-strapped health care system, caring for the old and dying was not necessarily the most viable option.
The Quebec health minister was asked if the Quebec government chose death over care and, of course, he indignantly said one thing had nothing to do with the other.
I still find myself shocked and shaken realizing how fast the wheel is turning.