Elder abuse … and euthanasia

Just as babies are vulnerable to neglect or abuse, so are the elderly — people at the other end of the life cycle.

The Globe and Mail is reporting a terrible case of elder abuse today. The victim, Tony Butler, is a 69 year old man who is unable to communicate — the after effects of a stroke he suffered in 2004.

Mr. Butler is 6’1″ tall. When he was rescued from his apartment, he weighed only 68 pounds. (His weight has nearly doubled since then.)

Mr. Butler’s adult daughter, who eventually rescued him, says his catheter appeared never to have been changed.

Mr. Butler was neglected by his “much-younger ex-girlfriend” who has been sentenced to eighteen months in jail for failing to provide the necessities of life.

Mr. Butler was also abused by his former girlfriend’s new, heroin-addicted boyfriend. He was found tied to a bed with a dog leash, his body covered in bruises, both new and old, wearing makeup from head to toe. He had three broken fingers and a badly swollen arm.

Not to mince words, this couple starved and tortured a 69-year-old man who was debilitated due to a stroke.

From time to time I hear about something like this, and it never ceases to enrage me. How could anyone do such a thing?, I wonder.

But of course babies, children, mentally handicapped folks, and other vulnerable individuals are not infrequently abused. It’s unspeakably depraved; it’s also somewhat commonplace.

This is a bit of a tangent, but the existence of elder abuse makes me reluctant to jump on board the euthanasia bandwagon.

I understand why someone who is suffering from a degenerative illness might be impatient for life to end. But I also bear in mind that such individuals are highly vulnerable.

Whether their illness is tolerable or intolerable depends, to a significant extent, on the support they receive from loved ones. But sometimes loved ones are cruel. Other times, they have a vested interest in seeing the elderly person die.

Our first duty as a society is not to make euthanasia available to those who desire it. (So far, I’m glad to report that Canadian courts have turned a big thumbs down on assisted suicide.)

Our first duty is to provide adequate care:  to relieve pain and provide companionship; to make the end stage of a person’s life as comfortable and pleasant as possible under the circumstances.

In that situation, a person might still prefer to die. That scenario presents a very difficult moral dilemma, to my mind.

But whatever decision we ultimately make, we mustn’t be naive about human nature. Consider how easy it would be for a loved one to say,

Gee, Gran, you look really uncomfortable today. It must be a terrible ordeal to go to sleep in pain, knowing you’ll still be in pain tomorrow, from the moment you open your eyes in the morning. It must be hard to cope, when there’s nothing in your future to look forward to. But we don’t consider you to be a burden, Gran — honest we don’t.

Next thing you know, dear old Gran is asking for a merciful death:  and the loved one is cheerily collecting an inheritance.

Unthinkable? Not when you consider what happened to Tony Butler.


10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Juggling mother
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 03:13:06

    Because there is a possibility that the concept can be abused, it does not mean that the concept is wrong – just that there have to be regulations and policies in place to try to stop any abuse taking place!

    Healthy people have the right to end their lives at a time & in the manner (to some extent) of their choice. It is not illegal to do so in the UK or Canada (I think?). I could go out today, buy tablets, bring them home, take them, call up all my family & have a touching death bed scene, if I so wished. My father (for example) does not have that choice – he can not go buy them himself, nor can he take them himself – we say that disabled people have equal rights and should have equal opportunities, but we do not allow anyone to support them to do things we dissaprove of! If I bought him the drugs, I would be prosecuted for murder!

    I am completely in favour of euthanasia. Not only because I believe people have the right to chose to die if they wish, but because I thinki they already do, and it is better to regulate it, control it, and ensure that those who really want to die can do so in the comfort and “safety”, with their family/friends around them.

    I agree that vulnerable people have to be protected. But just because they are disabled does not mean they can not take that decision! Look at Daniel James (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/hereford/worcs/7774802.stm). I don’t agree with his choice, I wouldn’t have taken it, his parents didn’t want him to do it, but ultimately accepted his decision. I totally agree that he had the right to chose.

    It is difficult to understand what living with a degenerative disease is like unless you do. It is impossible to know how you will feel unless/until you are actually in that position. But if someone I love really wants to die, I would rather they did it officially, painlessly, “safely” in a hospital, and with us all there, prepared and supportive, than unexpectedly finding them with slashed wrists in the bathroom, knowing they had died alone & in pain!


  2. Trackback: Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e44v5
  3. JewishAtheist
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 11:22:30

    One can support euthanasia for those mentally competent to decide for themselves without supporting it for those who aren’t. It’s just cruel to tell a man in agonizing pain and no hope of recovery that he must live because you’re afraid of some slippery slope.


  4. JewishAtheist
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 11:24:12

    Your point about relatives guilting someone into euthanasia is thought-provoking, though. As well as the idea that someone might choose to do it selflessly to just to save his family money. Still, I’m reluctant to deny someone dominion over their own body just because we’re scared they might make the choice for the wrong reasons.


  5. Bill
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 14:53:42

    This seems to be a day for the sad and difficult. CTV just posted a report on a Quebec man charged with helping his severely disabled uncle kill himself who has been found not guilty.



  6. Juggling mother
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 15:08:32

    Bill’s story shows the opposite side of family members guilting each other into action:

    “He asked me every day to help him commit suicide,” Dufour, 30, told the court.

    “I didn’t want to do it, but I wasn’t able to take it anymore. I felt like I was in prison.”

    I hope that if anyone in my family honestly asked for help, I would be able to provide it. Whichever way round it is.

    Of course, as I believe this life is all there is, I am naturally prone to think that death is a bad idea. It’s not a bad starting point….


  7. Bill
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 15:24:35

    I tend to agree with Juggling mother .While I believe there is more than life or there is life after life, I would rather that God or nature be the arbitrator of the moment of death. We then get into the debate as to are we interfering when we hook people up to machines. I don’t see this as a black and white issue as most things aren’t. And though I feel sorry for Dufour, I am not convinced he did the right thing.


  8. Stephen
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 19:45:51

    I’m actually quite sympathetic to JM’s point here:
    I hope that if anyone in my family honestly asked for help, I would be able to provide it..

    In a scenario like that — where I was directly involved, confident of my own motives, able to evaluate the sincerity of the person asking to die, and knowing that we had done everything in our power to make life at least a tolerable option —

    It would be difficult, in a scenario like that, to harden your heart against the heartfelt desire of a loved one.

    But that’s a kind of idealized scenario. In the end we’re talking about a messy public policy issue. So here are a couple of responses to JM’s first comment.

    First, I believe JM is correct that there is no law against suicide in Canada. But no law against should not be confused with a right to commit suicide.

    In fact, I think this exact argument has been set before Canadian courts. “An able-bodied person can commit suicide any time they want,” the argument goes. “A person who is physically dependent on others may not be capable of committing suicide unassisted. Therefore it is discriminatory against physically dependent persons to deny them access to assisted suicide.”

    Thus far, Canadian courts have rejected that argument. There is no right to suicide for able-bodied people, therefore there is no discrimination against physically dependent people.

    Canadian courts are progressive in virtually every respect. For example, that’s how we came to have same sex marriage in this country. That our courts have refused to countenance the argument for assisted suicide suggests that the intellectual analysis isn’t as straightforward as, say, the argument for a woman’s right to equal pay for equal work.

    The other point I’d like to make is that regulation isn’t a viable solution to the scenario I describe in the post. How would you regulate against the kind of familial conversation I imagine? — “It must be hard for you to cope, Gran, when there’s nothing in your future to look forward to.”

    You can’t open the door to assisted suicide without also opening the door to that sort of abuse of process. It’s too subtle, too private, too personal to eliminate it via regulation.

    We, as a society, have a grave responsibility to protect the vulnerable: and elderly or physically dependent individuals are extremely vulnerable.

    The bottom line for me is, I don’t have a very high opinion of human beings. Imagine, for a moment, how many babies would be killed if there were some lawful scenario for putting babies to death. I see the kind of depravity humans are capable of all too clearly, and I don’t think regulation can provide adequate protection for such vulnerable people.


  9. Juggling mother
    Dec 13, 2008 @ 07:55:26

    I still think that because it is possible to be abused, it does not mean the concept is wrong. Pretty much anything is open to abuse, but we don`’t ban that.

    You said “Not to mince words, this couple starved and tortured a 69-year-old man who was debilitated due to a stroke.” which is true, and abhorant, and they are criminals. It doesn’t mean the elderly should not be cared for in their home, by their family though.

    What worries me, far more than dieing, is living, trapped inside a body that doesn’t work*, or by a mind that makes life utterly pointless*, taking up resources that should be used on those that want them. I would much rather be allowed to die with dignity.

    *the problem with legislating on this is that it is a very subjective decision. And it is hard for individuals to know what they will/won’t accept until it is already intolerable, never mind governments.


  10. Stephen
    Dec 13, 2008 @ 10:12:20

    It’s true, we don’t prohibit family members caring for the elderly in their homes.

    On the other hand, there is nothing in law to suggest that it is ever appropriate for family members to starve and torture an elderly person. There is no grey area here: what that couple did is unequivocally illegal. They knew full well that they were on the wrong side of the law.

    To make euthanasia lawful blurs the line. It’s OK for Gran to ask for a merciful death. It’s OK for a third party to assist her in the act of suicide — sometimes. But when is it, and when isn’t it?

    At that point, the little speech becomes a much blurrier matter. She really wanted to die, I was just helping her screw up the courage to do it … It was better for her this way … I was doing her a favour.

    That person is unequivocally on the wrong side of the law only if euthanasia is unlawful. I think that there should be a clear line in the sand here.


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