Are we so afraid of our mortality that we fear the elderly and construct a mythological suffering around them?
Dr Karen Hitchcock is a consultant physician at Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital. Her 2009 short story collection Little White Slips won the 2010 Steele Rudd Award, and she writes a column for The Monthly Magazine.
Today’s conversation with David Leser at the Byron Bay Writers Festival delved into her essay Dear Life: On caring for the elderly, published in The Quarterly Essay in March.
Dr Hitchcock says that while everyone’s experience of old age is different, studies show overwhelmingly that the elderly are largely happy with their quality of life. Therefore she warns that we should be careful about perpetuating the myths of burden and suffering associated with old age.
From her vantage point within the medical industry, Dr Hitchcock sees that the biggest problems facing our elderly are a sense of loneliness and a lack of worth, and she describes that as a great tragedy.
Dr Hitchcock advocates reincorporating the elderly into the home, reinstating them with value, and creating forms of care that do not cast them as a burden. She also wants to see society celebrate the currently undervalued rewards of being a carer.
Careful to remind us that she’s not playing into any scary gender essentialist norms that woman should quit work and care for the elderly, Dr Hitchcock insists that her point is more nuanced than that: caring for someone need not be a burden, it can be the most rewarding life experience available.
But instead, she says, public hospitals have become a refuge for people who have nowhere else to go.
“Public hospitals are overstretched and threatened at every moment by conservative politicians,” she says.
On her own ward, “30 to 50 percent are there because of social catastrophes,” rather than for issues of physical health.
Doctors are great at treating disease and that’s what the hospitals are there for, Dr Hitchcock says. So these people might be better served in different kinds of care, but they have nowhere else to turn because “the social services have been decimated” by the government.
Dr Hitchcock warns of a terrible gap in our system that allows those people without family to fall through the cracks. She dismays that we can give someone a scan valued at $30,000, but we can’t find the money to give the same patient a bed for the night if he is homeless.
When asked if she supports euthanasia, Dr Hitchcock says that we are so afraid of being out of control, particularly in the final stages of our life.
“We need to protect the vulnerable in our society now more than we need to care for people’s fear of being out of control,” she says, reminding us that there are provisions in our medical system to ensure that we do not suffer needlessly at the end.
In citing a recent Belgian case in which a 30-year-old with depression opted for euthanasia, Karen warns that if we live in a society in which people are feeling so alone, that they feel there is nothing left for them, then euthanasia is not the answer to our problem.
I wonder if the answer is to look beyond western medicine and western cultures, into other paradigms where the elderly are revered as the wise elders, rather than the inconvenient and the unsightly.
Jack Savage is a Bachelor of Arts Student at Southern Cross University. He is majoring in Creative Writing and Cultural Studies and is interested in disturbing the peace.