Yesterday I visited a friend B who has been stuck at home for two months looking after his ailing and widowed father. B looked exhausted. “I get barely any sleep these days,” he declared. Things had gone downhill since his 95-year-old dad suffered a fall. Loss of function and dementia had set in quickly and the doctor told B that this was the end, and that he should simply do whatever it took to make his father comfortable. “ I give him whatever he wants,” said B sadly, “Whether it’s a piece of chocolate in the middle of the night or a conversation about someone he suddenly recalls.” Being an only child and a single man makes the situation of managing end of life care for his father a huge challenge. But he’s doing his best.
The issue of “quality of life” for the dying has been in the news for many months now. The Supreme Court called for a debate on euthanasia earlier this year, and more recently surgeon-writer Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the end has raised all kinds of questions about end of life decisions and how these should be made. Watching family and close friends manage the care of elderly people has convinced me that the decisions on whether to prolong life, and at what cost, are diverse and are often influenced by people’s attitudes to life in general. Whether length of life is more valuable than quality varies for each one of us.
There is B, who has accepted the inevitable and is comfortable letting his father go. But there are others, like my dad, who fought till the end to keep his own 101-year-old father, my grandfather, alive. He ensured that every single procedure or drug possible was administered to keep grandpa alive as long as possible. My dad is well known for his attitude of tenacity, and this was evident in the way he dealt with his father’s last days.
When it comes to quality of life for an elderly person, there’s no one I know who has had better than my grandfather. My parents lived above my grandparents, and dad spent several hours with his ageing father daily. He monitored his meals and activities and ensured that minor health problems were tackled the moment they arose. This ensured that acute illnesses didn’t become chronic, and that grandpa was sharp enough to discuss the railway budget and argue with my dad over cricket preferences, till he was 99 years old. From this experience, I’ve learned that the quality of life of the elderly depends upon staying healthy and alert, for as long as possible. Minor ailments shouldn’t be allowed to progress into major ones and the best kind of caretakers stay alert to signs and symptoms of ill health in the elderly and respond quickly.