It is time for the vet to give my 13-year-old Springer Spaniel a lethal injection. Isabella had been diagnosed with cancer a few months earlier and is now shaking and gasping for air. She is in pain.
My husband is in the air, on his way to a business meeting. So my friend Polly and I carry her in her dog bed into the vet's office. As she is about to give Isabella The Shot, I say, "This must be hard for you." The vet answers, "No, actually it isn't. Because I feel that I can do something so that Isabella no longer has to suffer."
She adds that her husband, an MD who works in a hospital, sometimes comes home in tears because he sees his patients suffer and feels completely helpless. They cannot have The Shot.
In the room, Isabella rests her silky head on my shoe, and I talk softly, telling her how much I love her and stroking her while she goes to "sleep." Polly pets her from the back and tells her what a brave and beautiful dog she is. It is hard to tell when Isabella slips away. The vet is stroking her, and after she dies, gives her "patient" a kiss.
I hope I have decades ahead of me filled with meaningful relationships, work, health, and fun. But when it is my time to die, I would like it to be the way Isabella did: quickly, peacefully, surrounded by love, and with a lethal injection. I don't want others dictating the terms of my death.
Isabella had a very "good" death. Which is more than I can say for many of our sick, elderly parents who have had enough.
Only two states, Washington and Oregon, allow physician-assisted suicide, where a terminally ill adult can get a lethal dose of medication from a physician. Montana and Hawaii have variations on the theme. So if you live in a state that doesn't allow you to make that choice, you're out of luck.
But maybe not for long. We boomers are not going to stand for prolonged pain and suffering. We watch our parents' lengthy demises and don't want to do the same. The first of 78 million boomers turns 65 this year. We're expected to live into our 80s, 90s, and beyond. No doubt, there will be major increases of disease and disability, and not enough money for many for proper medical care.
Already, boomers are rewriting the script on aging, reinventing retirement and even death. We're coming up with creative places to live in our final years, whether it's intergenerational or senior cohousing, the Green House concept in nursing homes (where institutional floors become "neighborhoods" and cozy, family-like units), or planning and personalizing our funerals. Choosing the right to die, a.k.a. euthanasia, when we're ill, frail, or no longer have quality of life, may well be the new hot button issue.
But today, there aren't many choices. Ten months ago, my friend's father, age 87, decided he wanted to die before he got so sick and was a burden to his children. (He had significant health problems, although nothing life-threatening.) For years, he had nursed his wife, who had Parkinson's, and watched, horrified, as she did a slow motion disintegration; he refused a grueling, drawn-out repeat. He drew his grandchildren and daughters together and told them he had decided to stop eating and drinking. It took him sixteen days to die.
Since then, I have heard about others, like Armond and Dorothy Rudolph, residents of an assisted living facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They decided to fast until the end, but Rudolph's facility didn't want the couple dying that way there -- even though voluntarily stopping eating and drinking, known as V.S.E.D., is legal in every state -- and called 911 to transport them to a hospital. (Relatives wound up renting a home to carry out their last wishes.) No doubt, the stop-eating-route will gain fans as other roads continue to be barred.
In the meantime, my friend Polly came up with a solution for her 91-year-old mother, who is ailing and has seizures. The two have had candid right-to-choice conversations. When her mother brought it up again the other day, Polly told her, "Don't worry, Mom, when you're ready, I'll take you to the vet's!"