Cristina Odone

Journalist, novelist and broadcaster

Why end it all just as we enter a golden age?

April 3, 2011 @ 8:09 pm

Sir Edward Downes and his wife died at an assisted suicide clinic (Photo: Toby Wales)

Sir Edward Downes and his wife died at an assisted suicide clinic (Photo: Toby Wales)

As Nan Maitland, 84, prepared for suicide in a Swiss apartment, she had one concern: could someone file her nail, please, as there was an uncomfortable rough edge? The night before, she had enjoyed a gourmet dinner at a top restaurant with friends; earlier, she had taken leave of her three children in Britain calmly and cheerfully.

Suicide has never been so low-key. Like Nan Maitland, many of those opting to orchestrate their final goodbye do not suffer from a cruel neurological disorder or limb-wasting disease; do not find life impossible after their beloved spouse’s death. No, like Mrs Maitland, the new breed of suicides are active and healthy but reluctant to live through “the prolonged dwindling” of those last 10 or 15 years.

Their survivors are no less matter-of-fact about the event. They talk (even to the press) of the deceased having made “their own choice”, and of their “dignity” and “quiet determination”.

Such talk, devoid of moral considerations, stripped of traditional stoicism with its imperative to “soldier on”, has become commonplace over the past five years.

A young man left paralysed by a sporting accident, a young woman pinned to her bed by debilitating ME, a doctor whose cancer left her only a few months to live: these recent hard cases stirred universal sympathy and softened the public’s attitude.

By the time the conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife ended their lives, the fact that he was a perfectly healthy 85-year-old, though increasingly deaf, did not strike anyone as extraordinary. Culture had changed, and suicide seemed an acceptable step in the ageing process.

Yet there is a terrible irony here. People are opting out of ageing just as research shows that, surprisingly, most old people are more contented in their final years than at any other time.

Our youth-besotted culture will find this impossible to believe, given that wrinkles, flaccid muscles and an unco-operative memory are regarded as fates worse than death. But this shallow attitude ignores the power of love and learning – and it’s being challenged by the latest scientific research.

Economists at Duke University, North Carolina, recently asked a group of 70-year-olds and a group of 30-year-olds about their well-being: the older cohort felt happier and more optimistic than the younger lot.

In The Warmth of the Heart Prevents your Body from Rusting, the French psychologist Marie de Hennezel argues that the last years can be a sort of golden age, when youthful radiance gives way to the radiance of joy. The best-selling book quotes the Princess Palatine, an 18th-century grande dame who, on being asked at what age sexual desire disappeared, answered: “How should I know? I’m only 80.” Compared to such a life force, today’s refusal to grow old seems tragic defeatism.

Predictably, the new desire for neat and tidy, if premature, ends has given rise to a new industry of death. The brand leader is Dignitas, the organisation which assists suicides in Switzerland, where the practice is legal.

Dignitas delivers a package as glossy as a Saga cruise in the Med: instead of a wood-panelled cabin, passengers get an antiseptic if somewhat soulless flat near Zurich; instead of a guide, they will have “an assistant” to ensure that the poisonous cocktail does its business. The organisers ensure they waste no time with bureaucratic procedures such as doctors’ prognoses or proof that the individual’s case is truly a terminal one.

The process is not cheap: at £10,000 per (one-way) ticket, a Dignitas death, like that fortnight’s cruise, can be a rite of passage only for those with a disposable income. But competition will reduce prices as soon as other countries follow Switzerland’s example and legalise assisted suicide. Then everyone can become a passenger on this grisly voyage.

I am not saying that we should return to old-fashioned attitudes towards taking one’s life. Only a few decades back, a suicide stained the family name, left survivors guilty and ashamed, and the deceased was often barred from a Christian burial.

Research into depression and mental illness has changed all that. Attempted suicides and the families of people who kill themselves are counselled rather than stigmatised, and since 2009 even the Catholic Church has judged suicide in the context of the victim’s mental health.

Yet I cannot believe that Nan Maitland asking for a manicure before swallowing a lethal dose is a sign of progress. In my view, the Princess Palatine, 300 years ago, had understood life, and ageing, a whole lot better.

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