Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Death doesn't become us - a thought on mercy killing

Anna Raccoon, in that knocked-back, slightly laconic manner she takes, describes yet another travesty of life sourced from the Court of Protection – the tale of Wally which she concludes with:

He was a success story by Court of Protection standards too. Probate had been obtained, building society funds duly accredited, house put up for sale to fund his care home, Statutory Will made out, Receiver changed to local solicitor.  Not much left in the account after all the legal bills had been paid.

I drove past the houses on my way to the next appointment. All one colour now, the second front door blocked up – I dare say the courtyard had been gentrified too. I could guess who’d bought it.

Everybody patting themselves on the back – job well done.

And, like these things do, it reminded me of the stories my Mum used to tell – of rapacious relatives, incompetent and venal solicitors and idle carers. Above all, Anna’s tale reminded me of my Mum’s argument against “mercy killing”.

My Mum spent 25 years and more working with old people in and around Penge – delivering meals-on-wheels, driving the mini-buses and running Penge & Anerley Age Concern’s lunch club and day centre on Melvin Road. In this time she saw every sort of folk – from Mr Squirrel who worried that he couldn’t (at 96) dig the garden as in times past to Dr Arnott, communist party member, academic historian and employer of a maid.

Every day, my Mum would tell us, one or more of the people she saw would proclaim – in that depression of loneliness so common among the old and infirm – “I’m just a burden, I’d be better off dead”, or some similar formula of despair. Mum’s response would be to tell them not to be so silly, have a cup of tea and a chat.

But Mum’s view – informed by bitter experience – was that not all the relatives and carers took the same view as she did. And, Anna’s tale of Wally reminds us of this:

The local Doctor was persuaded to sign a form for the Court of Protection – Wally ‘wasn’t taking care of himself’, ‘had no appreciation of the need to pay his council tax’ – Mrs Wally had been paying for both sides of the house for years, unwilling to let Wally’s negligence lose her a desirable home – it was sufficient. ‘Mrs Wally’ was duly installed as Receiver, and everyone assumed that she was his Mother.

All Mrs Wally did was to arrange to part Wally from his property and cash – imagine a world where that form is placed before Wally and his sort? The one where a depressed, slightly confused, sad old person signs to say they want to die, where the bureaucracy takes this as consent and Auntie Sissie or Grandpa Geoff is shipped safely across the Styx leaving his worldly goods behind for the inheritors to enjoy.

It is a depressing truth that much of the debate about our treatment of the old is informed less by understanding or sympathy than by totting up the banknotes tied up in these people’s homes and chattels. Banknotes that could make some old persons last few years more comfortable but which we leave there instead for the relatives to scrap over after they’ve died. And it’s a further depressing truth that “liberalising” euthanasia would grant the opportunity to bring forward the time for that division of spoils – all it will take is a consent form.

Anna’s tale of Wally reminds me why mercy killing – for all that it’s wrapped up in soft words and informed by tragedy – remains killing. And we shouldn’t make that easier, should we?


1 comment:

Anna Raccoon said...

Good post Simon. We are told so often that we must have laws to protect the vulnerable - but vulnerability is in the eye of the beholder, as is 'child poverty'. Wally ticked all the boxes for 'vulnerable' - and yet was he? He was living the life he wanted. It was choice on his part.
AS you so rightly say, the next step is a form whereby the elderly and slightly befuddled, perhaps after a corking family row, sign on the dotted line to say that nice Doctor can give them the injection now......