Mary Ackenhusen | August 27th, 2014
Gillian Bennett created quite a stir last week when she chose to take her life in a very public manner, in order to avoid “becoming a vegetable” due to her dementia. In Gillian’s words: “Every day I lose bits of myself, and it’s obvious that I am heading towards the state that all dementia patients get to; not knowing who I am and requiring full-time care”.
Death at noon
Gillian created a website as a forum to publicize her actions. This, along with the report of her death in the Vancouver Sun, followed by two op-eds, multiple reader comments and social media posts indicates that she may have achieved what she was seeking. Why was this private citizen so public about her death? Her daughter explains that she wants “a conversation, about this”.
I would have paid attention to what this extraordinary woman was saying through her public death in any case as a health care leader. Her statement, however, hit very close to home as my own father passed away at age 91 on August 4, after over ten years of progressive deterioration triggered by his dementia. He had “fought the good fight” but was it the fight he would have wanted for himself and his family? For his last years, while he still knew his immediate family, he required total care, mostly provided by my 85 year old mother assisted by five hours per week of home support. He could still walk and stand, but needed assistance and cueing for all his daily living and was totally incontinent. And yet, he seemed content and sometimes, happy. He had always loved to sing, and he continued to do so. When I was staying with him, that was what we did mostly—just sing—as it was not possible to have a conversation. He did have a few phrases that he liked to use. To any woman young or old (and sometimes men) he would loudly state: “You’re beautiful!” It turns out while I grew tired of this pretty quickly and would have to force myself to cheerfully say “thank you!” each time, several of the elderly women and care aides in his retirement community remembered him fondly for this enthusiastic proclamation that they said made their day more cheerful.
In the end
My mom, with the help of a family scattered across North America, did her best to keep him home for as long as possible. But a week before his death, it was no longer possible as he could no longer stand up on his own, and it now took two people to assist him so that he could walk. Arrangements were made to move him to a nursing home just five minutes away that specialized in memory care. He passed away a week later. While he weakened considerably during that week and could no longer walk, even with assistance, he still sang and he still knew his family.Two very different paths to the same end: Gillian Bennett and my father. If my father had had a choice, would he have taken a different path?
I admire Gillian’s intentions—to prompt the conversation around dinner tables, with our colleagues at work and in political circles. Gillian was very brave to take her own life and to use her death to try to push us to talk about things that make us uncomfortable. Are we up for her challenge?
As a professional working in health care and perhaps the child of aging parents, what do you think about this? Is it time for a conversation?