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Comments: Week of June 4, 2012

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1. “What do you do with your mom when she can’t do anything—anything at all—for herself?” Michael Wolff wrote in a cover story about the moral dilemma of extended old age. “What I feel most intensely when I sit by my mother’s bed is a crushing sense of guilt for keeping her alive” (A Life Worth Ending,” May 28). Many readers responded to the article with testimonials of their own, amid general praise for (and some dismay at) its candor. “This is truth—no Hallmark cards, no ‘she’s 80-something years young, today’s birthday brought to you by Smucker’s jam’ bullshit,” wrote one commenter at nymag.com. “My mother spent her life … taking responsibility for her own life, well into merry widowhood. When ­Alzheimer’s hit … none of the grace she’d earned in a long, fine life accompanied her into darkness … If I’d had the courage of my mother’s convictions, I’d have put a pillow over her head. But I didn’t. So she died by inches, for years.” Another wrote: “I ­wanted to cry and hug Michael Wolff, saying, ‘I know … I know.’ Sometimes I think the immediate family members and caregivers are the only ones who really know.” And another: “My mom died three years ago but really had died one and a half years before that. Partly in this world and partly in a place that was filled with unbelievable loneliness, fear, and anger.” Much of the anger readers expressed took aim at a medical system that has gotten better and better at keeping people “alive”—and a society that can’t always acknowledge the costs, human and otherwise, of such progress. “My sister and I were hit with both parents going through this at the same time,” wrote one. “It took seven years of absolute torture for all of us, and in the end, they died just days apart. Only then did we start receiving condolences. But they had died long ago, as this author points out. And we had grieved long ago. People did not realize what we had been through, what their condition was, and how we have been suffering and grieving for years. It was a lonely road.” Or, as another reader put it: “I will never forget, or forgive, the doctor who told me that my father had had a ‘miraculous ­recovery.’ Miraculous for whom? For how long? At what price? To what end? The medical profession needs to understand the difference between life and existence. My father wants to live, not exist. He’ll never again have the independent life he so cherished.” But some readers found the emotional calculus in Wolff’s article unsettling: At the First Things blog, Matthew Cantirino called it “a rather horrifying article … His piece, which begins with a somewhat sympathetic consideration of the ethical and moral dilemmas facing end-of-life patients, slowly transitions into mixed messages about the value of people in ­vegetative states, and ultimately lands in unvarnished contempt for the life of the woman who raised him.” At the American Conservative, Rod Dreher was more ambivalent, sympathetic to the situation Wolff and his family have found themselves in, but disturbed by the conclusions he’s reached. “The entire grueling experience his mother has had—being kept alive very expensively, even though she is in dementia and seriously ill—has made him decide to devise a suicide plan so he doesn’t live through the same misery, and put his kids through the same. I find that appalling, but it’s absurd to wish away the very real problems—both practical and moral—that come with ­living as long as we do.” And at Caregiving.com, Denise Brown asked whether there wasn’t some way to make those conversations less fraught. “I wondered, as I read the article, why health-care professionals suggest treatment, like open-heart surgery, in situations like this,” she wrote. “It’s heart-wrenching. It’s guilt-inducing. And, more and more, it’s inevitable … I guess what I’m really wondering is: How can we make it easier for you to say what can be so hard to say but is just what your caree wants you to say? How can we help you say ‘no’?

Send correspondence to: nymletters@nymag.com


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