On reading of Baroness Mary Warnock’s opinion (“Old and sick have a duty to die”, News Weekly, October 11, 2008) that the elderly with dementia are “wasting” the lives of those who care (in both senses) for them, one wonders how someone with so little understanding of the human heart can claim to be an ethicist.
Does she not understand that the children, siblings, grandchildren, nieces and nephews of the senile elderly are still bound to them by ties of deep and lasting affection, no less real than when they were in the prime of life, and that they are part of their on-going self-perception?
More than once I have heard someone say, of such circumstances, “I was not ready to let her go.”
Contrast Lady Warnock’s attitude with that of a Japanese doctor writing about the treatment of patients with dementia who attended a day-care facility. He (or she) pointed out the inappropriateness of pressure put on them to regain their normal mental faculties.
As he said, we do not expect an 80-year-old to run up stairs, jog or climb a tree as if still a mere 60-year-old, and we do not regard our care as a failure if we cannot train them up to these feats again.
Just as we accept their physical frailty, so we should accept their mental frailty as a natural accompaniment of ageing.
When the patients were not constantly badgered to perform feats of memory now beyond them (primarily of short-term memory), their family carers reported that they were happier and more placid, and apparent personality changes in the direction of irritability disappeared.
Despite their inability to engage with the recent past, they typically retained their life-long values and concerns – whether with peace, the environment or vintage cars. They were still, essentially, themselves.
Locked into her rationalism, Lady Warnock still has a lot to learn.
Dr Lucy G. Sullivan,