Belfast Telegraph

I'd rather have a dignified death than a living hell

By Jane Graham

The tragic case of Enniskillen man Bill Barbour, whom a coroner concluded this week had killed his Alzheimer-suffering wife to 'preserve her dignity', struck a deep chord with me and, I'm certain, thousands of others.

Eighty-nine-year old Bill Barbour suffocated his 83-year-old wife Anne, to whom he had been married for 61 years, and then drowned himself in nearby Rossole Lough two years ago. The case really brought home the reality of the slow death of hope which Alzheimer's inflicted on this devoted couple in the final years of their long lives together, with their son James telling the court he believed his father felt 'the end of the road had been reached.'

I wonder how many shuddered with dreadful recognition, as I did, when they heard daughter Pauline explain that Anne's mother had suffered from Alzheimer's and that Anne often told her family 'you must never let me go that far.'

My own granny was ruined by the disease years ago. The one-time flame-haired queen of the dance floor now spends her life in a chair gazing at the ceiling, her love of Frank Sinatra, Coronation Street and ranting at politicians on the telly long forgotten.

She has little connection to the family who once busied her life; she doesn't know who we are any more.

Her daughter, my own mum, has suffered both mentally and physically with the unbearable daily pain and pressure of the situation and has said to us, numerous times, exactly the same words which Anne Barbour said to her own family. And I have come to the same conclusion for myself. I just hope whoever is around, if it ever comes to that, has the mental toughness to carry out my wishes.

The debate around legalised euthanasia is rising in temperature as society eases slowly but surely towards what I feel will become a general acceptance. There are doctors who believe that assisting a suicide conflicts with the Hippocratic oath to 'never do harm', but we could argue forever about whether releasing a tortured, lifeless soul from an existence without pleasure or comfort constitutes harm.

Another common argument is that we must protect people who may volunteer to bow out prematurely for fear of burdening their family - but if I'm honest, it is the knowledge that I would become a burden which makes me most determined to be free to go.

I want to have some control over the way I'm remembered, and I pride myself on being independent, fast-paced, and hopefully, full of love and affection for my children.

I refuse to end my days feeling like a dependent burden, regardless of whether my family assure me I'm not. It would be a betrayal of the rest of my years.

There are also those, often buoyed by religious fervour, who insist that the sanctity of life is a value which outstrips everything else. I agree. I just don't concur on the definition of 'life'. It is the sanctity of life which Alzheimer's destroys.

If we as individuals have any value as human beings, we must be entitled to choose death as freely as we choose life. The path taken by Bill Barbour breaks my heart, but I would fight for his, and his wife's right to take it until the fight was knocked right out of me. By then, I hope to be able to choose to die with dignity as well.

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