Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist
Old Age

A common attitude towards the elderly in our North American society is that once they reach a certain age, around 75 or so, they are considered useless and are often shunted on one side. North America’s obsession with making money, being productive, not wasting tax resources, and so on, leaves old people out in the cold, as it were. One thing that many of the obsessive go-getters fail to understand is that it is the body that grows old and changes but the mind usually does not and, barring illness, old people are as mentally vigorous as any of those who try to demean them.

This attitude shows up in numerous ways, for example, two old people walking down the street holding hands are the object of mild amusement, but old people can love someone as, or more, intently than a younger person. Age has almost nothing to do with it, yet old people are supposed to lose their attraction to another just because their body ages. That is plain nonsense, especially since attraction depends so much more on personality and behaviour than it does on looks.

Another example is found in many grocery stores who fail to provide appropriately sized packaging for seniors. Six or a dozen chicken breasts is too much for two elderly people, one is usually quite sufficient, but try finding a package with a single chicken breast. The only option is to buy more than is needed and freeze it. That’s simple enough, I suppose, except that it does require purchase of a freezer. The situation is not so bad with vegetables where small quantities can be selected, but prepackaged processed foods can often only be bought in large packages. Refrigerators are full of half used items which have gone past their best by date and should really be discarded, at the cost of replacement, of course. However, over time grocery stores have been improving as more seniors come on the scene and make their preferences known.

There are numerous such examples, from being treated as a second class Canadian in some restaurants to being unable to buy appropriately styled clothes in clothing chains. How many elderly people want to wear low cut, hip hugger jeans showing bum cleavage, for instance?

It is a little strange, really, when you consider that a large proportion of elderly people have quite good pensions which they have prepared for over a working lifetime. Many are debt free, or nearly so, and they often have significant disposable incomes. Considering the amount of money they can collectively spend it is surprising that commercial enterprises do not cater to them much more than they do. In particular, I find restaurants missing the boat. After cooking for themselves and their families for so many years, many of the elderly are only too glad to frequent restaurants which provide the food they like at reasonable prices. Unfortunately, like many elderly people, I get tired of paying an inflated amount for mediocre food that I could prepare better myself at home. There are exceptions to this generalisation, of course, and those restaurants are well used. They are not usually fast food outlets, which I hesitate to describe as restaurants since I believe the term has been cynically co-opted by advertisers and its meaning disparaged and demeaned by applying it to hamburger joints and the like. Restaurants should have waiters and waitresses providing table service at the very least and prepare the food individually to order.

The foregoing, and other incidents like them, are basically just irritations. They are symptomatic of our society’s disdain for those who are not actively employed and making money and, perhaps, for those who are seen as being at the end of their lives and degenerating as people, and thus being unimportant. Despite this general attitude, of more concern is the abuse of the elderly in various forms.

When the subject of abuse is raised the automatic assumption is that a parent is beating a child or that some illicit sexual activity is being forced on a female, again often a child. The concept of the elderly as victims of abuse is not one of the automatic assumptions made, although it may be one of the most common forms of abuse in western society. It is well hidden and usually takes place out of sight, often by well meaning people who would be appalled if they were to be accused of abusing someone.

I am not talking of those scam artists who target old people because they find them to be easy marks for fraud, selling them overpriced junk or services they do not need. Often, these older people are simply not knowledgeable enough about the items proffered to understand they are being taken advantage of at the cost of their savings, or they are declining mentally as they age and unable to make a competent judgment. When the elderly have children who can look out for them, the situation can often be controlled if the elders will accept some limited control from their children and have trusting relationships with them. Unfortunately, it is not unknown for some children to take financial advantage of their own parents on occasion. Such children should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. The fact is that in most cases they will get that money soon enough anyway. Financially abusing their parents to get what is usually a relatively few dollars a few years earlier than expected is surely not worth the contempt and approbation of other family members, who will inevitably find out.

What I am referring to is the medical abuse of the elderly. In particular I am referring to the overuse of psychoactive drugs to keep the elderly in care homes quiet and easy to control. While not done in every elder care facility, there are sufficient credible reports to indicate that it is not an uncommon practice to give drugs to old people ostensibly to treat unruly behaviour but, in reality, to make the work of staff easier by stupefying nuisance patients. While such treatment may be indicated for patients with dementia, which may include incidents of unruly behaviour, not all dementia patients behave in that manner nor do those who do not have dementia. Old people taken from their homes and placed in a care facility against their will, either for the convenience of others or because they can no longer cope with the daily tasks involved in living alone, can surely be forgiven for being a little resentful about the events during their last few years of life. Understanding would surely be a more humane approach than drugging but would require more resources, financial and personnel, than the care giving group would be prepared to provide. Often these institutions are profit making enterprises providing care at a cost or public sector institutions with limited budgets and tight restraints on costs and staffing. The easy way is to drug the patients into somnolence and that, to me, constitutes elder abuse.

“They’ll be dead soon.” That is an attitude sometimes encountered within the health care system, when there are limited resources to provide services and consequent delays. Often, the elderly are shunted lower down the list in favour of younger people and have to wait longer for the same surgery. Canada forbids discrimination on the basis of age, but this happens with regularity. Elderly people feel pain in the same way as younger people, they experience disability the same as younger people, they are the same as younger people with one exception: age. While it may be hyperbole to say that the reason for delays is that elderly patients will soon die, like most such statements it contains a kernel that people may believe, in this case the perception that old people may not fully benefit from expensive medical treatment and greater value would be obtained from limited resources by treating a younger person. Requiring elderly people to experience pain and disability for a longer time than younger people while waiting for medical treatment is a blatant example of a practice that is both discriminatory and abusive.

Related to this is the reluctance of caregivers, whether family, medical or corporate, to allow an elderly person at the end of their life and in poor health with no chance of improvement, to end their life when they wish to do so. The same can be said about younger people with degenerative illnesses which render them unable to function at a most basic level. Society acknowledges that these adults, including the elderly in good mental health, are quite capable of taking important decisions regarding their own welfare, finances, living arrangements, surgery and a host of other significant life choices, but relegates them to being imbeciles when it comes to taking a decision regarding the voluntary ending of their own life.

Fundamentally, of course, this is a hangover from our society’s religious past when taking one’s own life was considered self murder and the deadliest of sins, leading to an eternity of tortures in hell by permission of the god of love who, according to the apostle John, created the place. Atheists do not believe there is such a thing as sin, nor a place of torture called hell, nor a god of love; only actions desirable or undesirable for society’s benefit. Forbidding an action to an atheist because some religionist doesn’t like it is a gross interference in the atheist’s freedom of conscience, and of anyone else who does not agree with the religionist as well. The fact that the action interfered with is the voluntary ending of one’s own life is neither here nor there as it has no effect on the functioning of our Canadian free and democratic society, the only allowed basis for restricting Canadian human rights. Refusing a patient with advanced ALS to end their own life does nothing to preserve either freedom or democracy in Canada. On the contrary, it restricts the freedom of the individual to make an important life decision, literally. This is purely a private matter involving the conscience of the individual concerned and should not be stopped. It should most certainly not be stopped because some self important religionists decide that forcing their concept of morality down the throat of everyone else in Canada is their god given right.

ALS = amyotropic lateral sclerosis also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a serious degenerative illness which, in its later stages, results in almost complete incapacitance.

As soon as rational argument is used in this kind of debate religionists and other opponents of the right of the individual to decide their own destiny introduce fear as a means of negating it. Fear is an emotion and the antithesis of rationality, but powerful nonetheless since it plays on our deepest evolutionary instincts for survival. The claim is made that if really sick people are allowed to end their own lives, it will eventually and inevitably lead to society endorsing the murder of people simply because they are old and in the way, or who have developmental disorders such as Down’s syndrome. Then the question is asked or implied, “Will you be next?”

Absolute and utter bullshit! That is the only way to describe this ludicrous claim. There is absolutely no link between someone voluntarily deciding to end their own life after careful consideration and someone else taking a decision to murder another person based on some selfish reason to ultimately benefit themself. In any case, it is very simple to make it all but impossible by enacting legislation forbidding anyone but the person who wishes to end their life from making the decision to do so, and requiring that they be certified as being in a rational frame of mind, capable of making such a decision, and by defining capability to make such a decision in a manner that would exclude those with special needs. I am convinced that the likelihood of murder under these circumstances exists more in the minds of the religionists than in real life. In actuality, those caring for the person deciding to end their life are reluctant to acquiesce, doing so only because they understand how difficult remaining alive would be for their loved one. How can religionists be so insulting to the family members of loved ones in distress by inferring they may take part in that kind of criminal behaviour during what must be a time of intense family stress just to serve their own religious ends.

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