Not far from where I live stands a nursing home. I have never been inside it, but I have visited other homes in a personal and professional capacity. They are, by equal measure, utterly dispiriting and quite uplifting. They are dispiriting because the people who live in them are going to die soon. They are uplifting because of the staff who work in them. Every day they go to work, often on pitiful wages, and they try to give dignity to the dying. And regularly, the people they care for die.
When an ambulance comes along our road, it is almost always to visit this home. The paramedics, who in my view have one of the most difficult jobs in the world, will know there may be little they can do. They rush in and do what they can, sometimes to people who have no idea where they are, have no understanding of life at all.
My mother and stepfather were both in residential care, which is a step down from nursing care, yet by the end their needs were indistinguishable from one type of care to another. My mother, probably mercifully, died suddenly and instantly after decades of pain and anguish. My stepfather’s decline went on for years until he lost his mind through illness. By the end I did not want an ambulance to revive him, were that necessary. In the end, it wasn’t.
I was there when he died. Dementia meant he had been lost many years ago, yet his passing, as I sat at the end of his bed, was among the most powerful experiences of my life. I do not mean that in some kind of spiritual way, where the body became an empty shell, whilst the rest of him went to heaven. It was just an extraordinary moment seeing someone die in front of me.I won’t say I was happy that his pain was finally over, but I was mightily relieved. One of the nicest men ever to grace this earth suffered no more. I could now remember him as I wanted him to be remembered.
I am not unaware that I may well go the same way as one or the other of them, although all kinds of deaths are possible and I don’t think it’s worth having a long debate about which one I am most likely to face. I do know the ones I certainly do not wish to face.
The ones that fill me with dread are things like dementia and motor neurone disease. We know what these diseases do and we know there is no cure for either. The prospect of being kept alive for no reason other than to be kept alive appals me, especially if I have no idea I am even alive or that my motor functions are grinding to a halt. Under no circumstances would I want to be revived if that was the way my life was headed because others, mainly family and friends, would suffer far more than me.
And I think that in a nursing home where I could of course end up, I could be the person for whom that ambulance comes. After all, I have no more right to avoid such a scenario than anyone else. None of this stuff is laid out for us. There is no masterplan from a supernatural creator who decides there is a reason for everything. We’re only here by the accident of our birth, aren’t we? (Answer: yes.)
It’s bad enough going to the GP and hospital and to have my ancient body prodded about when I have an examination for something and as things are I know exactly what’s going on. But what if I didn’t know what was going on and my life consisted of people feeding me through a tube and changing my nappy every so often? This, sadly, could be the unpalatable way it all ends.
As we say, no one gets out of here alive. It’s how we get out that matters as much as anything. Given an unlikely choice, I’d probably like to die in my sleep aged 100, after being on an all day pub crawl with my family followed by a slap-up meal in Casa Mexicana. Somehow I doubt if it will actually be that much fun. Being infirm and not having a clue where I was would not be my preferred choice. But it wouldn’t be anyone else’s, either.