Assisted Suicide and Elders: How Far Would a Loving Caregiver Go?


Assisted suicide—illegal in all states except Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico—has recently been in the news because of the court case against Barbara Mancini.

Mancini is a Pennsylvania nurse who was accused of helping her father, 93-year-old Joe Yourshaw, commit suicide by handing him his partially full prescription bottle of morphine when he asked her to do so. Her father, who was under hospice care, then deliberately took an overdose of the medication because he wanted to die.

Mancini has since been acquitted, due to lack of proof that she gave her father his prescription bottle with the intention of helping him commit suicide.

What if?

My mother, during her last two years of agony, would often a look at me as say, "Can't you just give me a little black pill?" It was obvious to me what she meant and, of course, all I could say was that I couldn't do that, but I would do everything possible to aid her comfort.

Yet, her pleading nearly broke my heart.

Mom had some mild memory loss at the time, but not Alzheimer's disease or severe dementia of any kind. I had the Power Of Attorney over her health, though my whole family was consulted on all important issues. Early on, Mom had opted for a do not resuscitate code and, as a family, we supported her choice.

It wasn't until doctors determined that Mom would likely die within six months that she was able to receive hospice care, which then opened up opportunities for better pain relief. I will always remain grateful to hospice for my mother's improved quality of life during her last months. When her time came, Mom died peacefully and with dignity.

What if I couldn't have secured hospice care for Mom and she had continued to beg me to free her from pain? What if I had the legal option that would enable me to honor her request? It was obvious that she was slowly dying anyway. Would I have helped her by supplying medication that she could, at will, use for a lethal overdose?

I'm not certain what I would have done, and I am grateful that I didn't have to make such a choice.

I do know that years earlier, when she showed signs of colon cancer, I respected her wish to not take the tests any farther. She rightly told me that she couldn't withstand the tests, let alone the surgery, so she didn't want to do anything.

I simply said, "Whatever you want to do, Mom, I'll support you," and that's what I did. She lived over seven years after that conversation, much of it in excruciating pain from various causes. Her dementia worsened as well. I've never had regrets about supporting her choice.

Whether or not her life was more painful or less so because of her decision, we'll never know. She may have died years earlier on the operating table, or she may have had the surgery and lived with less pain those last years of her life. All I know is that she made her decision and I supported her. The whole family did.

When I think of what people must go through to be certified to legally accept help in dying, I'm not certain that she had the energy to go through that process, even if it had been lawful at the time.

A difficult decision, and a long process

In most states where assisted suicide is now legal, the person wanting to die must be interviewed by multiple psychiatrists and, of course, already be within a certain closeness to death. It's not an easy process.

It's also not likely an option for people with Alzheimer's or another dementia since, by the time the disease brings them to the brink of death, they would no longer be legally qualified to make such a decision, due to their brain disease.

Even if people with dementia leave their designated Power Of Attorney for healthcare with specific instructions to help them commit suicide once they reach a certain stage, the ill person would no longer qualify for legally assisted suicide at that point, since dementia would be deemed to be clouding their judgment.

Some cancer patients, those with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and others who have diseases that will bring certain death, but won't cloud their judgment, may consider the choice to end their lives at an earlier stage than natural death would allow. The point of the law is to mandate whether or not a chosen person can assist them by supplying the means.

Hospice and healing

In most cases, hospice care erases (or at least makes bearable) any physical suffering, though there are exceptions.

Hospice, however, does much more than just assuage physical pain. The program also offers spiritual counseling for the dying person and support for the family. This assistance can sometimes bring even splintered families together during this transitional time. While I'm aware that some hospices are better than others, my support for hospice is unwavering.

Sadly, as in the Mancini case, it's not just physical pain that may exceed the ability of hospice to control, but the emotional and mental stress that, for some people, is too much to bear. That is when—I would imagine—assisted suicide becomes a consideration for some.

What happens after death?

In my opinion, some of the emotional turmoil about assisted suicide stems from each person's perspective on what death is. If a person feels that the end of physical life is the end of everything, it seems to me that it would be harder to die than if a person believes, as I do, that the spirit lives on.

Obviously, I have not personally been in this spot, though I may one day face such a dilemma. What would I want my loved ones to do? My healthcare directive is clear that I don't want to be kept alive under extreme circumstances. However, I wouldn't want my loved ones to have the burden of deciding whether or not to help me commit suicide.

Just what is assisted suicide?

Assisted suicide is not euthanasia. The person assisting is providing the means, but the patient commits the act that takes his or her life. Still, assisted suicide is, by definition, assisted. Someone, be it a physician, friend or family member, supplies the dying person with the requested method used to commit suicide.

How far should a caregiver go in supporting the wants and needs of a beloved spouse or parent – or even their child – when the requested support may hasten death? The answer to this question will be debated for years, and no doubt more court cases like Mancini's will be heard.

To some, Barbara Mancini is a hero for following her father's directions and giving him his bottle of medication. With that in hand, he could decide when and if to commit suicide. To others, she is a criminal because she didn't protect him from himself.

I suspect few people consider these issues more than those who care for suffering loved ones nearing death.

What would I have done in answer to Mom's plea if hospice care hadn't been enough for her and assisted suicide had been legal? I don't believe I could have given her the means to die, but I can't say for sure. I'm thankful that I didn't have to decide.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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As the daughter of a registered nurse, now deceased, my Mom told me many things that she saw in her career. It was hard for her to deal with patients who clearly were in great pain and begged to end their lives but because of the restrictions of society, she could do nothing . Personally, I don't think that it is a crime to help someone , who still is in sound mind, to end their pain. After all, look at the way society has come accept some things---legalized abortion, you can now smoke pot legally in Colorado, marriage between two persons of the same sex. The attitudes of people have changed significantly over the last century and it is just a matter of time that I think assisted suicide , although still regarded by some as an offense to God, will be accepted by more people. Just my opinion.
Nana2Nanny. I totally disagree with you re anyone (except a downright murderer) killing a parent for money. ObamaCare isn't the "death sentence" the politicians have made it out to be. It's been very helpful for me, though not exactly cheap. But while our politicians fight it, think about the fact they have a LOT of perks: 3 months of vacation; great health insurance & retirement and more. They are the last people I'd look to for objectivity.
After reading your response, it is obvious you are bringing your religious beliefs into this discussion, which is not the topic (I believe), so I will end it there. If you aren't able to be objective, it's not worth going further with a response.
What difference does my spiritual belief have? (I wouldn't touch religions with a 100 ft pole) The person above me also feels assisted was something he couldn't do but since he didn't say why? You my dear have not read obamacare- I suggest you do. Palin was accused of exaggerating and now- Liberal MSNBC stated, and I quote "looks like those we called conspirators were right" as they referred to the chapter and vs regarding a selective right of the dr to refuse care which is Eugenics.. I believe I said laws and politics have no business making these laws and turning to more holistic ways is a better option. Socialized medicine and life and death issues need to stay out of government. And I am glad you are one of the very few lucky obamacare people- I am 60 and was told that the treatments for my spinal condition that I have had for 8 years is no longer covered due to Obamacare restrictions. And my premiums went up 50% and my deductible 30%. Refusing my treatments will excellerate my disease- instead of being in a wheelchair in 10 years I may look at next year. So yes, Government will destroy healthcare and end lives pre-maturly and holistic options may be all we have- unless they ban them which they are trying to do. I worked for 40 years and was forced to buy Social Security- and promises back then have been lost in the years. GOVERNMENT HAS ZERO ethics.