Today, in the Western world, everyone lives much longer than previously - an increase in prosperity, and many good developments in the medical sciences have made this possible. In the early stages of old age, most people can cope, perhaps setting new goals and meeting challenges as they arise. But, for so many individuals, as they move into their late 80s and 90s, there is a gradual decline, both physical and psychological.
Many very elderly people may still not suffer from a serious specific illness, but instead, from numerous, increasingly annoying health problems. When the unrelenting burdens of living, at a very advanced age, exceed the joys of being alive, competent individuals can finally reach the tipping point in wanting to die. Surely that final decision should be theirs, not made by anyone else. They know that they do not want to see themselves draining away still further before they are a completely empty self. They have become tired of the difficult and unpleasant symptoms of old age. They have to consider if they should die now or wait, thereby causing themselves and perhaps their families to suffer still more, and then die. It is surely their right when they are old and ailing to decide when is the best time to die, for themselves and for all those around them.
People are generally very frightened by the idea of suicide. Perhaps this is because it is painful to imagine that those we love might choose to die, to leave us permanently. However, if someone is suffering unbearably from the effects of old age, suicide gives that individual release from further suffering. This rational, or “balance-sheet” suicide makes excellent sense because the reasoning used can conform to normal logic.
Today, it is very reassuring that, in other European countries, serious consideration is being given to Old Age Rational Suicide.
The Netherlands adopted adequate safeguards to permit both doctor-assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia in 1981 - for those who had a terminal illness or suffered severely from an incurable disease. Then, in 2001, in order to examine the physical and psychological problems faced by many elderly people in that country, the Dijkhius Commission was established (Dr Jos Dijkhius was an emeritus professor of clinical psychology and psychotherapy). The following year, a poll in The Netherlands showed that 45 per cent agreed that “the elderly should be able to obtain medicines with which they can end their lives when they so wish”; 35 percent disagreed; and 20 per cent had no opinion. In its 2004 final report, the Dijkhius Commission noted that for elderly individuals who “had a hopeless outlook on their future...euthanasia legislation can indeed apply”.
The Dutch right-to-die society, formerly called the Dutch Voluntary Euthanasia Foundation, had been renamed the Dutch Association for a Voluntary End of Life in 2003: today, it has 102,000 members (the national population is about 16,500,000). In 2008, this organization noted, regarding very elderly people, that “The total dependence on others, the loss of control over their personal life…(means) that every new day is experienced as an unbearable task…they are longing for death…they have become too old in their experience and wish to be released from their lives”. This Dutch society is undertaking further research and conferences on this important problem.
In 2002, the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, noted (regarding the appeal made to it by Diane Pretty, who suffered from motor neuron disease) that “without in any way negating the principle of sanctity of life protected under the Convention, the Court considers that it is under Article 8 that notions of the quality of life take on significance. In an era of growing medical sophistication, combined with longer life expectancies, many people are concerned that they should not be forced to linger on in old age or in states of advanced physical or mental decrepitude which conflict with strongly held ideas of self and personal identity”.
The Netherlands is not the only European country that is considering the possibility of doctor-assisted suicide for the very elderly. In Switzerland, in 2008, EXIT Deutsche Schweiz, the right-to-die society in the German-speaking area of that country (its membership is 55,000), held a conference on the same subject. Afterwards, it was noted that, for competent very old people, who wished to die, “it is about their own subjective and individual perception of their own dignity…a dignified death can only be assessed by the individual…neither lawyers, nor doctors, nor politicians have the moral right to decide for the individual”.
SOARS has already made contact with those in The Netherlands and Switzerland who are leading the debate on Old Age Rational Suicide in these countries, and it will continue to keep in close touch with them.