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.

When does life end?

A very sad case is getting some attention in the news these days.

Motl Brody, a twelve-year-old boy, has died because of a brain tumour. But according to his parents’ religion, Motl is still alive:

Doctors at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington say the seventh-grader’s brain has ceased functioning entirely.

But for the past few days, a machine has continued to inflate and deflate his lungs. As of late Friday afternoon [Nov. 7], his heart was still beating with the help of a cocktail of intravenous drugs and adrenaline.

That heartbeat has prompted Motl’s parents, who are Orthodox Jews, to refuse the hospital’s request to remove all artificial life support.

Under some interpretations of Jewish religious law, including the one accepted by the family’s Hasidic sect, death occurs only when the heart and lungs stop functioning.

That means Motl “is alive, and his family has a religious obligation to secure all necessary and appropriate medical treatment to keep him alive,” the family’s attorney wrote in a court filing this week. …

Unlike Terri Schiavo or Karen Ann Quinlan, who became the subjects of right-to-die battles when they suffered brain damage and became unconscious, Motl’s condition has deteriorated beyond a persistent vegetative state, his physicians say. His brain has died entirely, according to an affidavit filed by one of his doctors.

The affidavit was filed because the hospital is seeking the authorization of a court to discontinue care.

Coincidentally, I mentioned this topic only a few days ago in a comment here:

Jews emphasize the text in Genesis 2, “The LORD God blew into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” Jews conclude that a baby becomes a living being when it draws its first breath. Similarly, life is considered to end when a person ceases to breathe.

There’s an exceptionally sensitive discussion of the case at scienceblogs.com. Orac (the blogger) has direct experience with situations like Motl’s, as a resident on the trauma ward:

When a child suffers brain death, it’s incredibly difficult for the parents to accept that the child that they love is dead. After all, the child is still warm, still smells like their child (and smell is a very primal sense), still has a beating heart, and still looks like a child. It doesn’t take religion for parents to go into profound denial over the true situation. However, there is no doubt that religion can be a powerful force that can reinforce such denial. …


Actually, death is not beautiful

This photograph packs such an emotional wallop, I decided to share it even though I find it very troubling:

apparently beautiful suicide

It’s a photo of a dead woman lying on top of a car. A few minutes earlier, she had leapt from the observation platform of the Empire State Building. The force of her landing caved in the roof of the car and smashed out its windows.

Jason Kottke, who has the full story, calls it the most beautiful suicide.

Actually, no. It’s a beautiful photograph, despite the subject matter.

Suicide is never beautiful. Death is never beautiful. I know:  there have been several suicides in my family, plus several unsuccessful suicide attempts. Suicide is always a tragedy.

I will always remember a conversation I had with one member of my immediate family. Whenever anything bad happened to her, she would immediately think, “I wish I was dead.” And I don’t mean whenever something really bad happened to her — any small setback would produce the same reflexive thought.

Somewhere in her mind, there lurked the idea that death was beautiful:  the solution to all of life’s manifold problems. I wonder whether other people have the same idea. People who themselves might be potential suicide candidates.

Death is ugly. You want beauty?

Glenn Gould(Glenn Gould)

Life is beautiful.
boys laughing(by Flickr user GDabir)

Life is beautiful.
backlit, pregnant(photo by Pascal Renoux)

Life is beautiful.

Men will be boys

Men will be boys … sometimes with lethal consequences.

From eyewitness reports, police gave a detailed account of events leading up to the crash.

A 55-year-old man was heading to work from his Milton home. He was driving north on James Snow Parkway when, at 5:16 a.m., a maroon Pontiac Grand Prix pulled up beside him.

While police don’t know what precipitated it, they allege the two drivers began a duel of sorts, jockeying to be the first on the Highway 401 ramp ahead. They accelerated “at a high rate of speed” toward the on-ramp, said Staff Sergeant Dennis Mahoney-Bruer of the Ontario Provincial Police Port Credit division.

The man driving the SUV managed to surge ahead and merge into the centre lane, but the Pontiac driver wasn’t conceding defeat: He accelerated and cut in front of the SUV, then slammed on the brakes — a classic road-rage manoeuvre, police say.

smashed up SUVDavid Ritchie, Globe and Mail

To avoid rear-ending the Pontiac, the SUV driver swerved to the left and lost control, smashing into the cement median and rolling at least three times, police said. The SUV bounced about 300 metres until it landed upright. The driver, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from the vehicle ….

The man was pronounced dead at the scene. Police have not released his name at the request of the family.

I don’t like to pile onto people who have already suffered a tragedy but, in this case, maybe it’s a kind of public service announcement. Maybe someone else will think twice before yielding to road rage.

The victim was 55 years old. The other guy, who is now charged with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous driving causing death, is 39 years old.

Both of them were old enough to know better than this. And the victim wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, which is why he was thrown out of his SUV to his death.

It’s a senseless tragedy from beginning to end. “It could have been avoided,” his brother says.

The quote is from the Toronto Star, which also quotes OPP Sgt. Cam Woolley:

He said drivers who get involved in road rage incidents are generally men with above average incomes and education.

“We’ve literally had soccer moms in minivans ramming each other, but usually it’s men,” he said.

“They are generally people who have had no previous contact with the police and have good reputations in the community.”

How sad:  to live a good life only to die violently — or kill someone — because of a childish tantrum in an automobile. May the rest of us consider well, and not make the same mistake.

Laying it on [the gangs] thick


Part of my time the last couple weeks has been spent updating my list of podcasts. Though I don’t always check them daily, I tend to tune in to a variety of shows as I go about blogging or chatting to friends. But I found out recently that my list of subscriptions was sorely lacking, as CBC’s podcasts were completely absent from my list.

If you’re interested in great content, or simply don’t want to tune in to the television to catch the news, CBC.ca/podcasting has got a huge amount of content for free! Though some items, like The Hour, are not complete and serve as a grab for their television program as much as anything, others like the At Issue panel are full of potent newscasting without the inconvenience of tuning in at a specific time of day!

And it is, indeed, the most recent At Issue that has me posting today! First, for those of you not familiar with the Hou Chang Mao shooting, read the story here. Then, check it out the At Issue video yourself here, or subscribe to the podcast feed here, and take the 5 minutes to watch the panel.

Although Rex waxes poetical a bit too much for my tastes (I’m pretty sure the first line about Dickens is his motivation for doing so, but it’s still hard to bear 😛 ), he makes a very important argument, and the pathos really starts to hit you by the end. Though at first you groan in exasperation at the fact that he sounds so pretentious, it becomes clear that he’s talking about an issue that really requires some thought and sensitivity. The fact that he ends by calling out the gang members responsible for the killing is both necessary and sadly ironic; After all, those very people are the ones least likely to watch such a show.

I encourage you again to check out some of the podcasts, including the At Issue panel. That was an irregular feel for the show — the Point of View segment is arguably less intriguing than the normal “round table” feel of the program — but it still gives you a good feel for the type of issues confronted.

Welcome to the 21st century. Let’s do away with TVs forever!!!

Names worth mentioning

The story surfacing about a tragic accident in New Brunswick rings a little too close to fiction to be entirely comfortable:

Killed shortly after midnight were students Javier Acevedo, Cody Branch, Nathan Cleland, Justin Cormier and Daniel Haines, all of them 17. Also dead on impact were Nickolas Quinn, who turned 16 the day of the crash, and Nick Kelly, 15.

Also killed was Beth Lord, an elementary school music teacher and the wife of coach Wayne Lord, who was driving. Mr. Lord was shaken up but released from hospital yesterday.

The three other passengers, including the coach’s daughter, were also injured.

Police said the team’s 15-seat passenger van veered across Highway 8 and was struck by a transport truck that tore the van apart – just five minutes away from arriving in this city of about 12,700, and two kilometres past the “Welcome to Bathurst” sign on a straight stretch of road.

Officials said it was too early to look at whether the crash could have been prevented. Provincial guidelines say a school bus should be used for trips of this distance.

A high school basketball team, wiped from the face of the earth in what likely spanned no more than a few minutes. Having recently seen We are Marshall, this tale struck me as straight out of the movies. It’s not — and neither was the movie, admittedly based on a true story — but it still feel surreal, as it does for the members of the school:

Emotions are still raw here and few of those grieving at the school wanted to discuss their feelings. Those who did, both students and adults, tended to express an air of unreality.

“I don’t think it’s going to settle in until the wake, or perhaps the funeral,” said Neil Carrington, the rugby coach for Mr. Haines who, along with the other boys, played several sports.

The odd part about the human psyche is that the larger the tragedy, the longer it takes for reality to set in. Part of it is a lack of real, tangible closure, I’m sure. In an accident of this caliber, surely most if not all of the bodies would have been too badly beaten to have open coffins. But though it’s partly an issue of closure, it’s also simply human to suffer this disbelief. Somewhere in there, we weren’t programmed to accept massive accidents to move on with life.

But it’s real, whether we were made to deal with it or not. And, unlike the mass murders which beg for media attention, this story is one that flies regardless of the town’s intent. It seems crude that the town of Bathurst won’t be given the opportunity to wallow in misery. They deserve that chance. But the media’s all over the story. That’s its job.

Still, what can you do? They deserve solitude, but they also deserve support. It’s not much. Almost nothing at all, in fact. But the most we can do is pray for the people involved, and mention their names. Give them the chance to find support in every community, if only because we all fear, in a small facet of our consciousness, that the same would happen to us.

Saying goodbye, part 2

I should begin by explaining where I knew Tom from. I used to work at Christian Horizons, providing support for people with developmental challenges. Tom was our behavioural consultant:  he would come to the residence once or twice per month to help us devise a strategy for responding to problem behaviours.

Tom wasn’t conventionally religious. He described himself as a spiritual person, but he didn’t believe in God.

Nonetheless, allow me to use a verse from the Bible as a framework for my thoughts. As I talk about it, it will become clear why I think it’s a suitable way to express my respect for Tom.

The verse is, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”.

Tom was a problem solver and a peacemaker. At Christian Horizons, people would sometimes get upset over everyday, routine things. Taking a bath, getting dressed, getting into the van to leave for day program — those sorts of things could be very upsetting.

It was upsetting for everybody. It was stressful for staff, but it was also stressful for the individual involved. They weren’t happy. They were frustrated or angry or otherwise miserable. So we needed to find a solution for everyone’s sake.

Tom had an arsenal of professional skills that he could bring to bear on the problem. With his help, we would carefully analyze the behaviour to identify its precise trigger and come up with a strategy to manage it better and avoid conflict.

I think I can honestly say that Tom’s intervention made a difference every time. No matter how challenging the problem was, Tom was able to effect an improvement.

It wasn’t just a matter of professional training:  it was who Tom was. People don’t go into this line of work to get rich. They go into it because it reflects their values, their temperament. And you could see that with Tom:  he was soft-spoken, patient, quick to laugh, a good listener.

He was a problem solver and a peacemaker, as in the verse I quoted above.

Let me interpret the second half of the verse for you. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God“.

Jesus is referring to a family resemblance here. It’s like a newborn baby, when people look at it and they say, “He’s got his father’s chin”:  or “She’s got her mother’s nose”. Even though the baby is only a few days old, people can already see a family resemblance.

No one has a physical resemblance to God; but we can have a spiritual resemblance to God. And that’s what Jesus is referring to here. God is a peacemaker; Tom was a peacemaker. You can see a spiritual resemblance between the two of them, a family resemblance.

But that’s not how Tom would put it, I know. Tom didn’t believe in a personal God. So let’s think about this concept in a way that Tom would be comfortable with.

Tom believed that the fundamental principles (or forces) of the universe were positive. In particular, he believed that love and peace are the core realities of the cosmos.

It takes a kind of faith to look at things that way. If we look at the universe from one perspective, we see a lot of ugliness. We see conflict, violence, misery, and death. Coincidentally, today is the anniversary of 9/11. You could be excused for thinking that ugliness and darkness is at the core of the universe.

But Tom didn’t see it that way. He looked at things from a different perspective:  a perspective that appreciates the sublime beauty of a song sung in four-part harmony, or a convivial evening spent with friends in the local pub, or a hockey game played at the local arena.

Tom was a big Beatles fan. We were reminded of that last night:  when we got together there was Beatles music playing. And what did the Beatles sing about? Everyone knows the answer to that question:  the Beatles sang about love more than they sang about anything else.

Later in his career, John Lennon turned his attention to the cause of peace — he used his celebrity to wage a campaign to promote peace.

Those were Tom’s values, too. He believed that love and peace are the fundamental principles of the universe. That’s why Tom was a problem solver and a peacemaker. He aligned himself with those positive, fundamental forces.

I began with a verse from scripture. Perhaps it would be fitting to conclude with a few lines from a Beatles song (a poem, really):

Limitless undying love
which shines around me
like a million suns,
It calls me
on and on
across the universe.


Tom died of cancer last week, at 56 years of age. I’ll be speaking at his funeral this afternoon.

The original “Saying goodbye” post, remembering my sister Kathy, is here.