Too Costly to Keep

My best friend’s father was in his eighties. He could be vague and forgetful, but he didn’t have dementia. He was pretty lugubrious, it’s true, never having been the most cheerful of chaps, and he missed his late wife, who had died a few years previously.

Sometimes he got depressed, complaining that he didn’t know why he was still living, but he was generally OK, and in good physical health for his age.

His son and son-in law kept an eye on him, visiting most days, taking him out for walks, or to the pub, doing the shopping, about which he had no clue, since his wife, like most wives of his era, had done everything for him.

He still lived in the flat they had shared, in a sheltered housing complex. The management had suggested that perhaps he would be better off in a smaller apartment, but he was fine where he was, and wanted the spare room so his son could stay over if necessary

Then he had a fall. It wasn’t very serious: some bruising where his hip hit the table on the way down, and a small gash in his arm requiring a couple of stitches. He was whisked off to hospital.

His son-in-law was told his father-in-law was in some pain, but they had given him morphine, which seemed to have made him more comfortable.

And so it seemed: he was his usual grumpy self, complaining that the nurses were making a fuss about nothing, and that the pain hadn’t been enough to bother him. But the doctor had insisted, so he’d given in

Later that night his son, who was overseas, got a call.

“I’m afraid your father is getting worse. If you can come back to England, we think you should.”

“But he only had a minor fall! And he was doing OK!”

“Well, he may have seemed that way, but he’s not too good. We’ve had to increase his morphine. For the pain, you know.”

Alarmed, he rang his husband, who rushed to the hospital, and found the old boy in good order, although obviously sedated. No, he wasn’t in any pain, and what was all the fuss about? 

He left after making sure the old man was comfortable.

At 3am he got a call from the hospital.

“We thought we should let you know that we’ve had to increase your father-in-law’s dose of morphine again. For the pain, you know.”

“But he wasn’t in any pain!”

“Ah, well, they often tell relatives that, so they won’t worry. But we have it under control.”

The old man died later that night. After a further dose of morphine.

His only physical injury a bruised hip and a gashed arm.

His son remains convinced to this day that his father’s death was ‘assisted’, without his consent. But how do you set about proving such a thing?

“Dad may not have been terribly happy. And he missed Mum. But I’m certain he wasn’t ready to die. If he was, I’d have helped him. But he wasn’t. Someone else took the decision for him. 

“And some people might say, ‘What does it matter? He probably only had a year or two to go anyway.’ But they were his years, not for someone else to take away because they thought they knew better. 

“Maybe they wanted the hospital bed. Or to free up the sheltered apartment. I don’t know. But I do know that he wasn’t that ill, and he certainly wasn’t ready to die.

“What made me really mad was all the ‘sympathetic’ people at the hospital who said things like “You should be glad he didn’t suffer”, and “Surely it’s better than lingering on”, as if they were doing him – and me – a favour!”

The callous response to people dying in aged care enrages me. The accountants with their spreadsheets determining that they couldn’t afford to house, feed are care for these people properly now determining that they’re too expensive to even keep alive.

But that same mean inhuman spirit has been around in some corners of the health system for many years. It took the virus to expose the attitude quite so starkly.

Someone said to me recently, “I don’t how you old people do it. Live with the knowledge that death is so close. I don’t know how you carry on without freezing in terror, knowing you will be obliterated any day now.”

Frankly, it doesn’t bother me. Worrying about something I can do absolutely nothing about is a useless waste of however little time I have left.

What does freeze my blood is the thought that some bureaucrat, some doctor, some well-intentioned nurse, may decide that it’s time for me to die, right now, ready or not, because it would be expedient. Convenient for them. Save them a buck. Free up a bed.

And really, they tell themselves as they slide in the needle, it’s doing them a kindness, isn’t it?

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)