Suzanne Fields

When my mother was in her late 80s, I took her to a lawyer's office one sunny day to sign her "living will." We read over the questions and her answers, and she signed on the dotted line. She was pleased with the decisions that she had made weeks before.

We went shopping afterward, and she bought an antique watch that caught my eye in a shop window. This was an appropriate gift, she joked, because she had named me to be in charge of her "lifetime." If the time should come that a doctor asks whether to prolong her life when all hope is gone, I need to produce her living will.

Such discussions and "signings" with older parents had become commonplace among my friends of a certain age. We were confronting generational tasks that our grandparents never dreamed of. These were not morbid tasks, merely the latest reality bequeathed by technology that can keep a body physically alive, while those parts we think of as constituting our humanity have flown away. Yet nothing puts terror in the hearts of old folks as much as a discussion of end-of-life issues.

Can it be possible that faceless bureaucrats get the power to decide how an aging person will be "counseled," regarding when and how to give up the breath of life? This was the question asked of the president by a woman named Mary at a town hall meeting for the American Association of Retired Persons.

"I have been told there is a clause in there that everyone of Medicare age will be visited and told to decide how they wish to die," Mary said. "This bothers me greatly and I'd like for you to promise me that this is not in this bill."

The president looked greatly bothered by the question, too. He told her that the question was about getting information, not determining when and how someone's life would end. His grandmother, who died only months ago, the first lady and the president, himself, had signed living wills. This, he said, gave his grandmother "some control ahead of time." Nobody would be required to take such counseling, but one such medical consultation within a five-year period would be paid by government insurance.

That sounds harmless enough. The consultation would be voluntary, not mandatory; you could specify a family member to take charge if you can't. The legislation would simply guarantee your ability to learn about such choices and Medicare would pay for it. So, why are so many people still upset by the end-of-life clause in the House health care legislation?


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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