Take Me Out the Back and Shoot Me


Death by nursing home. That’s how one letter writer to The Age described the alternative for people after the Medical Treatment (Physician Assisted Dying) Bill 2008 was rejected by the Victorian Parliament this month. Not being able to speak, read or write, walk or sit up, feed yourself, wipe your bum. I know what I would prefer.

So did my mother. She died last year in a Victorian nursing home. She was 75. It was 10 years since she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

When we were growing up, Mum worked at a large nursing home in Geelong. She’d come home and say "Don’t ever put me in one of those places; just take me out the back and shoot me." That’s why I cried and cried when Mum was diagnosed. I had an inkling of what her life would be become — and that we couldn’t do a damn thing about it. I knew she would be slowly stripped of dignity, her brain would waste away and she wouldn’t recognise any of us. I didn’t know that my father would one day have to search the dam when Mum went missing or that he would stand there on that day, suddenly much older, crying.

The day before Mum died, my family gathered around her nursing home bed as people were wheeled in from other units for the afternoon’s scheduled activities. My young nieces rolled around the floor with the enormous dog that makes regular visits. People loved it — kids and a dog — a bit of what their lives were like before the home.

One of my nieces played the upright piano and there was a fair bit of toe-tapping in the wheelchairs. My sister-in-law, who works in a nursing home herself, and my youngest niece did a song and dance routine. Smiles all around and some joined in the singing. We watched and took turns to go and hold Mum’s hand.

Then the God-botherers arrived. Earnest piano and guitar playing. Hymns. The mood changed. The smiles were gone and we all went back into Mum’s room.

My mother was a tall fit woman who loved a laugh. Two of her favourite expressions will always stay with me: "More arse than class" and "Useless as tits on a bull".

We felt like those tits as we gathered around her bed. She was wracked with fever and her skinny body was clammy. She couldn’t tell us where the pain was. She hadn’t spoken for a long while. An occasional word only: a "thank you" to Dad as he patiently fed her, a "nice" when we asked her if she liked the food — vitamised so that she didn’t choke. What she could do was howl and you knew it was Mum making that unearthly sound when you opened the door to the nursing home.

This is what Denise Cooper-Clarke, adjunct lecturer in Ethics at Ridley College and the Bible College of Victoria has to say about such times:

"Being present with those suffering and dying is a more costly but much more precious gift than acquiescing in their request for their life to be ended. We refuse to kill people when they are suffering, not because we value or care for them less than dogs, but because we value and care for them so much more."

Useless as tits on a bull. It was no "precious gift" seeing Mum suffer, knowing that she didn’t want to be there. The Physician Assisted Dying Bill dealt with terminally ill people who could make their wishes known. My Mum made her wishes known years ago but the Bill would not have been able to help her once Alzheimer’s had raged through her brain. But she needed something, and we needed something. Short of taking her out the back and shooting her, there was nothing we could do.

She died choking on her own saliva as the ravages of Alzheimer’s took her through its final stage. My sister, a highly-qualified nurse, was unable to use a suction device to ease Mum’s discomfort as there wasn’t one at the nursing home. It was deemed "palliative care". We were stunned — it didn’t make sense.

Lightning hit the ground in the cemetery when we buried Mum. Thunder boomed overhead, muffling the words of the priest. People from the city hid under the trees; the locals stood in the open. Fifty millimetres of rain fell in 20 minutes.

"Let the defeat of this dreadful bill send a clear message to euthanasia advocates throughout Australia that the debate is over and euthanasia legislation should be left to rest in peace," said Rob Ward, the Victorian director of the Australian Christian Lobby.

I’d like to think that the storm at Mum’s burial was a clearer message.

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