This morning I was struck by an article shared on Facebook by a friend. It was a letter from an emergency room doctor comparing the way we used to treat our elderly and the way we treat them today. article can be read here. I highly recommend everyone digest it.
The doctor was arguing we have not improved the lot of the aged by keeping them artificially alive long after their bodies have run their course. He paints a beautiful image of an elderly woman propped up and looking out a window, watching her grandchildren playing as her time approaches. She is permitted to pass among her loved ones in familiar surroundings. He then compares the modern tendency to warehouse the aged and artificially keep them alive, long after they have lost any semblance of quality life. Now, before you take this letter and build a new norm—declaring that all elderly should be allowed to stay home until they are quietly and peacefully shuffled off this mortal coil—keep in mind that replacing an imperfect system with another imperfect system is not an improvement. To make it somehow unloving to seek nursing home care for a parent whose daily needs are beyond what the family can provide is no better. And simplistically deciding it is best to allow nature to run its course may not be the solution either. Imagine a person who needs extreme care, burdening her family, but continuing to carry on for decades. What I am saying is that swapping the social burden and guilt which causes many families to extend a loved one’s life into an almost cruel existence is not improved by placing guilt upon them for being unable to provide extreme but appropriate care at home.
Instead, we need to understand something much deeper. We need to understand love and what it truly calls upon us to do. Recently I had a conversation with a family member. I explained that when I say “I love you” this does not mean I agree with what you are doing, or feel good about your situation. It may be true that I can love you and not even enjoy being around you because of what they are doing. You see, to love someone is to always act in keeping with that person’s best interest. It means I will do what is in your best interest, even when it may not be in mine.
One thing I’ve discovered, in my own experiences, with families making end of life decisions is that they too often make them based upon their own interests, instead of the interests of the one suffering. People may say:
“How will I go on without him?”
“But I don’t want her to die!”
“But I need him. We can’t make it without him.”
You see, to act in a loving way is to make the decision based on their interests. The sentiments above are natural and normal. But, depending upon the situation they are likely selfish. The loving version may be:
“Is it right to force him to go on like this?”
“Does she want to continue like this?”
“What does he need? Can he live like this?”
My point is that doing the loving thing, in this situation and many others, is often the hard thing. The loving person often must make the very choice they want least to make. When I was raising my children I had to do many things I did not want to do. I did them, not because they were good for me, but because they were good for my children. As a husband, I have to do things based upon my wife’s needs. As a son, I must do things based upon my mother’s needs. Don’t get me wrong, my mother is far from needing such choices made. I hope to be as healthy as her when I am her age. It is the fact that I may someday face these choices that makes me think. I’ve already had to make many hard choices and do many hard things in love. When my son was young I had to hold him down while the doctors did a spinal tap. This was not easy. It hurt him and he screamed. My own nature said, “No!” But my duty as a father and my love for my son made me do what needed to be done.
What I am trying to do is get us to understand that love is doing what is right for the one loved. If this means it is time to pull the plug on a loved one, then do so without guilt and without any concern for what others might say. If the best care and quality of life for an elderly parent is in a nursing home, then don’t be ashamed of making that decision. But if it’s better to keep that parent at home and allow them to leave this earth from their own room, then don’t let anyone shame you into making a different decision.
This last part is another element of love. Love acts without fear. Others may misunderstand. Others may get angry. Others may attempt to cast aspersions and to shame the one upon whom the choice falls. But recognize these for what they are—manipulations. Love will not be manipulated. Love chooses based upon the needs of the one loved and then stands behind the choice.