My stepfather is dying. It happens to all of us at some point in this wonderful, crazy journey, but the way we leave this mortal coil needs to be delivered with more grace and dignity. This is especially true as our population ages while our health care system is being shredded by continuous cutbacks and lack of vision.
At 84, Jim has had a good innings. In his prime, he was an acclaimed mountain climber, cyclist, hunter and downhill skier. When I arrived in Canada, it was Jim who introduced me to downhill skiing — the first sport that really excited me — and gave me the opportunity to swoosh down most of the mountain slopes across Western Canada and the U.S.
At over six feet tall, Jim has always been an opposing, physically impressive man with a keen intellect and a “gift of the gab” that can talk circles around any opponent. Yet, the last time I visited my mum in Comox, Jim needed help getting into the car and I was struck at how light and frail he has become.
His last years have not been kind. In his 60s, he underwent his second heart bypass. This extension enabled him to experience another two decades of life, which is a miracle in itself. But that extension has come with a tough price as his years wind down. The doctors feed him a cocktail of drugs for heart, kidney and agonizing arthritis that has left him bed ridden. He has a hernia, but the doctors can’t operate because he wouldn’t survive the operation. He suffers from bladder infections, but all that can be done is adding more drugs as, again, an operation would be fatal.
Last weekend, he was rushed to the hospital in extreme pain and laboured breathing. There, the doctors told him he should be admitted, but they didn’t have any free beds, so he would need to sit in a chair for a few days. He chose to go back home and wait for the doctor’s promise of home care to show up. Five days later, a home-care worker found him still suffering. Unable to lie down, Jim’s feet and legs were dangerously swollen. She recommended that he return to the hospital in the hope that a bed would open up.
This time, Jim said no. If he was just waiting to die, he would rather do it at home. Jim is a proud man who doesn’t like to ask for help, but no one in the medical system has given him any hope that life can improve. He’s joined the new lost generation of elderly who don’t have the resources for assisted living or the ability to end their days with dignity.
It frightens me that so many of us face the same fate. If you’re under 55, chances are you won’t have a company pension or health plan when you retire, and the government safety net we were promised has become a mirage on the horizon. We need a leader with vision and fortitude to rebuild our health care system and restore our hope for the future. M