On the Usefulness of Death Panels

It seems to me that, in the cacophony of debate surrounding health care reform and the so-called “death panels,” that a simple foundational reality has eluded some people: Death panels would be immeasurably useful in modern American society.

Which is to say, they are useful in a society that has largely abandoned the traditional family and the network of support it ensures.

In the past, the elderly were largely taken care of by relatives — usually adult children — in the context of an extended network of family who lived in geographical proximity to one another. There was no question of mom or dad moving to an assisted   living facility; they simply moved in and were cared for at home, with other family members offering support and assistance as needed.

Today, this reality no longer exists — as I see it, for two primary reasons. First, children no longer live close to their parents. I live six hours from my mother; many of the friends I know live even further than that from their parents. In a mobile society, distance limits the amount of direct care children can provide for their aging parents. And given the quality of health care seniors now receive, most are able to live more active lives than their parents are their age. (My mother certainly doesn’t want to leave her home to live with my family. We’d crimp her style!) Second, the Boomers had fewer children than their parents did. This means fewer children sharing the responsibility of caring for aging parents which leads to additional stress as family.

These two factors are only exacerbated when aging parents enter the final phase of their life on earth. Again, given the quality of modern health care, this phase is often marked by catastrophic illness that even the best hospitals and doctors are unable to treat. In this situation children are called on to make excruciating decisions regarding how their parents will be treated and what medical interventions are appropriate. Most are not prepared to make these decisions, either a) because they do not know what their mother or father   would want, or b) because their own unresolved emotional issues make them less likely to accept the reality of impending death and more likely to choose superhuman interventions that only prolong dying. (I’m speaking here extraordinary measures such as choosing to resuscitate a patient in a coma who has gone into cardiac arrest while in the final stages of pancreatic cancer, not ordinary care such as nutrition and hydration either naturally or artificially administered.)

Caring for the dying elderly, especially those we love, is a thankless and heartrending task! And given that reality, the truth is that death panels would be enormously efficient and useful by taking the messy, painful, difficult — and most of all human! — process of dying and placing it in the hands of an impartial and disinterested group of individuals.

And isn’t that what we all want for our loved ones?