We have a dog, Opus, who has been with us over 14 years. He is a super mutt that we rescued as a puppy from the SPCA. He has short legs, a longish spine, pointed, alert ears, and personality plus, attributed to his expressive, jet-black eyebrows. The years have been kind to Opus, though there are growing signs of deafness and reduced eyesight. A bit of arthritis makes for tender joints, exhibited in his new-found willingness to stand and stare at the passing squirrels, most of whom he formerly enjoyed chasing through our mountain enclave.
And no, he wasn’t named for the musical style, but instead for the lead character in the comic strip Bloom County, a philosophical penguin madly in love with Diane Sawyer.
I’ve been thinking about our Opus, happy that he remains in good health and spirits, enjoying his company each day as it comes, but also knowing that the end of our relationship is closer than the beginning.
“Weighing the End of Life,” an opinion column by Louise Aronson that appeared in the Sunday New York Times started me to thinking about how we address the end of life, both for our dearly loved pets, and for ourselves. (See link, below)
How do we know when it’s time to allow our pets to pass on, to relieve them of their misery? This is a question that Aronson discusses in great length in her column, brought home to a personal level by her mixed feelings about her own, aged dog, Byron.
He was 14, half-blind, suffering from dementia, and often walked around whining for no clear reason. At other times, Byron seemed lucid, ready to play or take walks. But even during the good days, he needed special attention. Water softened food, trips outside to relieve himself several times a night. As often occurs with older animals, Byron slept more than usual. Is that time peaceful rest, or the only relief the animal has from pain?
How does one tell when its time to mercifully help a long-time member of the family? How do we know it’s time for the scales to tip away from companionship in favor of ending pain and discomfort in the animal. How do we weigh the humane versus spending one more day with a loving and faithful pet?
It’s certainly a bridge I dread having to cross, even knowing it is still a ways into the future.
But this piece also got me to thinking about ourselves and our decision points as we age.
Aronson is a Geriatrician, a doctor who specializes in the care and disease states of older adults, who cares for the “frailest and sickest among them,” as she puts it. So her piece logically morphs into questions facing us all as we age.
Medical care technology has far outstripped our historical well-being, able in certain
cases to significantly prolong our lives, ignoring basic qualify of life questions. Is lying in a bed, fed by tubes, breathing by machine, living? Fear mongers have politicized the aging process, making claim to outlandish ideas of bureaucratic “Death Panels” making our end-of-life decisions for us.
But those are extremes. What of cases of severe or painful disease states, with no real hope of remission or cure? Perhaps someone with a long history of recurring heart disease, or a spreading cancer, wracking the victim with unbearable pain and nothing in the future but more of the same?
On the one hand is the overly optimistic doctor, compassion overruled by the latest experimental therapy. On the other, patient and family who fear the futility of one more surgery, one more course of treatments with little chance of a favorable outcome, only the chance to live a few more weeks or months.
Shouldn’t these very real situations be considered, a plan made, individual wishes made known ahead of time?
I’m concerned for the number of people who have not created an Advanced Medical Directive that clearly spells out their desires, who can make decisions for them, what courses to pursue once they are unable to decide on their own. It is such a simple, logical idea, to discuss with a trusted family member or close friend, exactly what care we want in the event of a catastrophe.
The unplanned alternative? I would never again want anyone to experience the family heartache and destruction caused by the likes of the Terry Schaivo case in Florida, a human trauma and disaster so easily avoided.
But that’s just me…