Aging

Check Out On Your Own Terms

Suicide among the elderly may be less tragic than self-empowering

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Every couple of years, some well-intentioned scribbler pens a hand-wringer about the national tragedy of suicide among the elderly. "Suicide rate for elderly men is alarming," noted Dennis Streets in the Chatham Journal last month. "Suicide rates are high among the elderly," cautioned Paula Span in a 2013 New York Times article. "Elderly are at highest risk for suicide," the AP warned in 2007. Apparently, some of our nation's senior citizens have been deciding for years to check out when they please rather than waiting for the hand of time.

The articles seem to be more human-interest pieces than a response to a pressing concern, since there's been no surge in suicides among the older set in recent years. That 2007 piece cited a suicide rate of 14 per 100,000 among those 65 and older. The CDC's Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System has the latest figure at 14.72 per 100,000 for the same age group. That's down from the 21.8 per 100,000 rate reported in 1987.

The reasons for "suicide are complex and still being researched," a Washington Post piece tutted in December, "but they often include depression." Left unaddressed was one very uncomfortable but important aspect to the story: More so than any other group, the elderly may well have perfectly rational reasons for being depressed—and for choosing to die by their own hand.

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When Hunter S. Thompson shot himself at the age of 67, he was troubled by a failing body and the knowledge that his best writing was behind him. The note he left for his wife read:

Football Season Is Over

No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun—for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax—This won't hurt.

Thompson not only ended his pain—he got to go out in style, amidst headlines, with a hell of a party.

Most of us aren't gonzo writers who want to leave with a splash, but even today, when people are living not just longer lives, but healthier ones than their parents and grandparents, there's no escaping the fact that bodies eventually deteriorate. At some point, more than a few people are going to decide that their hearts are still pumping well after the quality of their lives has dropped below a level they find acceptable.

What defines an "acceptable" quality of life varies for each person. Some people are eager to live as many days as possible, others recoil at outliving family and friends, many stop taking pleasure in life when they lose their physical independence, and more than a few may make their peace with declining mobility, but have a horror of mental deterioration that erases the essence of who they are. It's an individual decision that really can't be second-guessed.

Well…It can be second-guessed, of course. "Attitudes and beliefs can be significant factors in suicide, particularly autonomy, dignity, and responsibility," Patrick Arbore, director of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services Institute on Aging in San Francisco told Today's Geriatric Medicine. Clearly, one person's bug can be another's feature. It depends on your view of death and suicide, and that view can be rooted in very personal feelings.

Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis / Public Domain

Span's piece for the Times delved into the grief and anger felt by an adult daughter who felt abandoned when her ailing father took his own life. But there's an unavoidable conflict when friends and relatives are unprepared to see us go and we're ready to say goodbye. As he gasped for painful breaths on his deathbed, Benjamin Franklin's daughter, Sally, told him that she wished he would live many years more. "I hope not," he answered.

Grief comes as a natural response to the death of a loved one. So far, death is inevitable at some point, whether naturally or at a time of our choosing.

I have a male relative whose plan for long-term care as he ages consists of ending things when he can no longer care for himself. He's quite clear and matter-of-fact about it, and has held his position for many years. Specifically, when I sat him down to have that simultaneously dutiful and presumptuous conversation about long-term care, he looked at me and said, "I have a .357 Magnum."

My curiosity was as satisfied as it's ever likely to be, and I couldn't fault his choice, though my own preference is a .45. I'm inclined to the same course of action myself, when the time comes. If I'm still up to it those many (I presume) years from now, I think I'll take one last backpacking trip that never ends.

Given that we all must eventually die, the taboo against discussing when and how some of us might want to voluntarily check out can be jarring. It's coming, no matter what; that would seem to be sufficient reason to give some thought to how to confront the end.

"My glioblastoma is going to kill me, and that's out of my control," Brittany Maynard told People magazine in the lead up to her much-publicized death by her own hand (perhaps conscious of the weight carried by the term, she insisted it was not suicide). "I've discussed with many experts how I would die from it, and it's a terrible, terrible way to die. Being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying."

If that logic makes sense for a terminally ill 29-year-old, it's no less compelling for other people for whom the end nears one way or another.

That's not to say that every suicidal impulse should be treated as a brilliant idea—such an irreversible act seems especially perverse among the young and healthy. But for people for whom death is a looming reality, the decision by some to slightly adjust the date, place, and manner of their demise can be a rational effort to take control of their ultimate fate and retain a little dignity.

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114 responses to “Check Out On Your Own Terms

  1. If I lost my mobility I don’t know what I’d do. No running, no sports.
    If I could be like my grandparents who at 86 can play tennis for several hours a day, I’ll be happy and feel no need to act like those mentioned in the article above.
    However, it is a personal choice that (after deliberation) should be respected. If you’re going to leave this life, might as well go out with a bang

    1. “If I lost my mobility I don’t know what I’d do. No running, no sports.”

      Ask Stephen Hawking how he keeps himself amused.

      1. “Ask Stephen Hawking how he keeps himself amused.”

        Hitting on his nurses.

      2. And I’m sure every damn day Hawking, for a minute or a second, thinks about ending it all. That he doesn’t choose to doesn’t mean he considers the option off the table.

    2. $89 an hour! Seriously I don’t know why more people haven’t tried this, I work two shifts, 2 hours in the day and 2 in the evening?And i get surly a chek of $12600 whats awesome is Im working from home so I get more time with my kids.

      http://www.navjob.com

  2. It’s true that not every suicidal impulse should be treated as a brilliant idea, writes J.D. Tuccille.

    Especially if the idea comes from someone else who is suspiciously closing in carrying a very fluffy pillow with her two hands…

    1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest bonus points (athough McMurphy probably would have wanted to exit that existence).

  3. I have it on good authority that choice over one’s own body begins and ends with abortion. People have actually flipped out when I dared to suggest otherwise.

    1. Killing oneself is appreciably different than killing an unborn child that (most of the time) is the result of conscience actions with known consequences.

      1. Conscience actions? Like fucking to end world hunger?

  4. Excellent piece, Toochilly. Well done.

  5. Suicide, for any reason, under any circumstance, is a privilege attending self-ownership. It’s as simple as that. With the standard disclaimer of “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. It’s always been something of an amusement to me how most people will take their barely-conscious pet rodents in to be euthanized quickly and (relatively) painlessly by a veterinarian rather than watch them suffer, but are appalled at the possibility of extending that courtesy to fully sentient human beings in the throes of far worse suffering.

    1. Yep. Speciesism is rampant.

    2. “most people will take their barely-conscious pet rodents in to be euthanized quickly and (relatively) painlessly by a veterinarian rather than watch them suffer, but are appalled at the possibility of extending that courtesy to fully sentient human beings in the throes of far worse suffering”

      Likewise, many people will eat the flesh of their animal friends but scruple at eating human beings.

      Human and non-human animals are different.

      1. Tell us about your utopian theocracy, Eddie.

        1. This in response to a comment rejecting cannibalism?

          If you need a theocracy to keep us from cannibalism, give me theocracy!

          1. Maybe you need a theocracy to prevent cannibalism, but all I need is the imminent threat of “the shakes”

            1. I admit I don’t 100% understand your point.

              1. Must be talking about Kuru.

                http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuru_(disease)

      2. Indeed. Some humans will push for months of pain rather than allow basic self-ownership due to their perceived sense of morality.

      3. Inorite? It’s almost like killing yourself and eating another person are different things with different ethical implications.

    3. Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge your right to off yourself basically denies your self-ownership and agency. It’s as simple as that. So fuck them. Nothing they say is to be taken even remotely seriously, because they are total scum.

  6. And I’m staring down the barrel of a 45,
    Swimming through the ashes of another life
    No real reason to accept the way things have changed
    Staring down the barrel of a 45

    1. Is that from “Teen Suicide (Don’t Do It)”?

      1. Shinedown — 45

        1. I only accept suicide lyrics from people that actually committed suicide. Kurt Cobain, Mama Cass and Garth Brooks.

          1. Shotgun, ham sandwich, and ______?

            1. Gender ambiguous soft rock alter ego.

              Technically it was just career suicide, but I still count it.

          2. Mama Cass

            Sarc? She did not commit suicide.

  7. “there’s an unavoidable conflict when friends and relatives are unprepared to see us go and we’re ready to say goodbye.”

    Conversely, there’s a bit of a conflict when someone is inclined to keep living but their relatives and doctors are subtly hinting that maybe it’s time to check out.

    Let’s not be naive about the context in which many of these “voluntary suicides by the elderly” will occur.

    I don’t endorse blowing one’s brains out, but someone who does this without a physician’s help is at least not contributing to the corruption of a healing profession.

    1. Which is why we need a panel of technocrats, accountable to the people, to decide when it is appropriate.

      1. In practice, this is where we’re going with all this talk about “the right of the elderly to die with dignity.”

        For many, it will amount in practice to “starting a conversation” with an elderly patient about “end of life plans.”

        Either it will be a relative (heir) or a (government-paid) doctor initiating this totally non-coercive “conversation.”

        1. What if the person is just horrible and literally no one wants to take care of them? I had a relative like that…her death was suspicious, but no one felt any need to do any investigation.

          1. Hmmm…there’s a distinct possibility, sorry to hear it.

            1. Why? I was just as happy as everyone else when she died. This woman abused her children and her grandchildren. She cursed at and assaulted any and all caregivers. She was booted out of more than one old folk’s home as a danger to other residents and the staff. In the end she was left by herself in her home for just a little too long, and everyone sighed a breath of relief.

              1. I was going by the part where you said her death was “suspicious,” what I took to mean that maybe her death was more than an accident?

                I don’t know your specific situation, so if I misunderstood you I apologize.

                1. She died of infected bed sores.

                  1. Again, I’m sorry to hear of the whole situation, and if I misunderstood you, I’m very sorry.

        2. This is the point where Eddie starts making up all kinds of excuses against libertarian principles because libertarianism diverges from Catholicism. When in actuality, he REALLY means:

          I want you all to follow Catholic dogma, but I can’t come right out and say it here because it would be rejected by those with actual principles.

          1. OK, Francisco, you’re on the list of people to be burned at the stake when we take over.

            You are aware, of course, that the Catholic Church also supports aid to the poor? And believes that marriages need to be voluntary, not coerced?

            So if you’re going by the principle of “I support the opposite of what the Catholic Church does,” you must reject charity to the poor and support forced marriage!

            1. Don’t forget the Church’s fight against eugenicist laws.

              So if your fear of Catholic contamination leads you to oppose whatever the Church does, I suppose you’re for involuntary sterilization?

            2. So if you’re going by the principle of “I support the opposite of what the Catholic Church does,” you must reject charity to the poor and support forced marriage!

              So now, I not only question your motives, I question your intelligence.

              Who said anything about rejecting all Catholic supported principle? Your logic is as warped as your motives.

              I said you abandon libertarian principle whenever it comes in conflict with your religion. You are here to engage in Proselytism.

              1. I would *love* for you to join the Catholic Church!

                But if not, I have just as much right to defend “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” as any atheist. Indeed, I have a *greater* right to do so, since I acknowledge the existence of God, just like Jefferson.

                Think of the implications – on this issue – the existence of “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” – I agree with Jefferson, the anti-trinitarian, anti-Catholic, Bible-bowdlerizing Founding Father, more than you agree with him!

                1. I have just as much right to defend “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” as any atheist.

                  Yes. Yes, you do.

                  But you could be fucking honest about it rather than give us all this bullshit about government and kids pushing their parents to off themselves to save money. Your real reason for being against suicide is because the church tells you that’s your position.

                  I’d respect you a lot fucking more, than I do, if you were at least up front about it.

                  I have a *greater* right to do so, since I acknowledge the existence of God

                  No. No, you don’t. Your rights don’t exceed those of anyone else’s.

                  1. “bullshit about government and kids pushing their parents to off themselves to save money”

                    OK, just to be clear, do you *deny* that government and children (heirs) will pressure these elderly people to kill themselves to save money?

                    If you deny this, you are naive.

                    Or perhaps you admit it could happen, but claim it’s wrong for me to bring it up, because my motives (as you interpret them) are impure.

                    Who, then, gets to stand up and point out that the emperor has not clothes? Who has the necessary moral purity (as ascertained by Francisco d’Anconia) to question the voluntariness of many of these “voluntary” suicides?

                    Also, what objection do you have to the laws of nature and of nature’s God? If you disagree with our Founding Fathers, have the honesty to admit it up front. And admit that we should have remained subjects of George III.

                    1. “I’d respect you a lot fucking more”

                      Well, no offense, but if I had the respect of the likes of you, that would be a fairly clear sign that I’d gone wrong somewhere.

                      I would prefer to have the respect of intelligent and honest people. Sorry.

                    2. OK, just to be clear, do you *deny* that government and children (heirs) will pressure these elderly people to kill themselves to save money?

                      WHO CARES? It doesn’t fucking matter, so long as the decision is made by the person who’s considering the option of suicide. It’s no one’s business and no one’s choice but their own.

                      Also, what objection do you have to the laws of nature and of nature’s God? If you disagree with our Founding Fathers, have the honesty to admit it up front. And admit that we should have remained subjects of George III.

                      Are you drunk Eddie? Why in the fuck would I give half a shit what the Founder’s thoughts on religion were? How does it have ANY bearing on the topic whatsoever?

                      I would prefer to have the respect of intelligent and honest people.

                      Yeah, Eddie, you’re honest. Please.

                      You come here…”Oh, I’m a fellow traveller…I like liberty.”

                      “Oh, btw, I define liberty as living in a Catholic theocracy.”

                      (Yes, my personal take on your true desires.)

                    3. So you don’t care about the founders of this Republic or any of their insights, and you don’t care if the government pressures people to kill themselves in order to save money.

                      Well, you’re right about this much: *one* of us is a fanatic who cares little if at all for liberty.

                    4. So you don’t care about the founders of this Republic or any of their insights…

                      Christ, you are fucking dense.

                      I care a great deal about the founders insights. Whether they believed in God or not has absolutely ZERO bearing about their insights on liberty.

                    5. Why do you let this theist troll you like that? Ignore him.

    2. Better a thousand people be kept alive against their wishes so they can experience all the best pain and misery that the physical process of death can deliver than one old person have to have a potentially awkward conversation with their asshole relatives.

    3. Besides, if family members want to off their aged relatives for the inheritance, there’s easier ways to do it.

      1. *two-handed facepalm…then…applause*

    4. Bingo! The Terry Schaivo(sp?) case scared me, especially the way the narrative became “well the autopsy showed she couldn’t be reacting, so it’s all good”

      When did we move from “If you leave instructions, and cross the Ts and dot the Is, we’ll allow it.” To “We’ll withdraw care on the word of somebody with a financial interest”

      1. “well the autopsy showed she couldn’t be reacting, so it’s all good”

        Brought to you by the same school of justice that found a bunch of people standing by the pond saying, “Well, the water accepted her body, I guess she wasn’t a witch! Shame she drowned.”

  8. Does life insurance pay out in the event of suicide?

    You could always mimic a drowning or fall off a cliff hiking.

    1. Typically life insurance does pay out, as long as you’ve had that insurance for a period of time (usually 2 years, I think).

      1. I recall seeing four years on a policy I had.

  9. Libertarians advocate killing off the elderly to boost corporate profits!

    1. Rahm Emanuel is toying with this idea to save money for the government.

      1. His Doctor brother and Obamacare enthusiast says I should already be dead because my use to society has passed.

        But my young wife disagrees.

        Who am I to believe ?

  10. When I decide to check out, I’m going for a long walk in the Rockies without any camping gear.

    1. But but but….”Don’t Feed The Bears”, dude

      1. I also plan to be very very high, so feeding the bears might be amusing. Can a bear get high from eating a person who has taken a near fatal dose of heroin?

        1. I thought you were going without gear?

          1. Heroin IN me….no gear.

            1. I would be too scared that the aliens from “I Come in Peace” would steal my endorphins to try that.

              1. Hey, the end goal is death. Does it really matter if it’s bears or aliens or exposure?

                1. I’m pretty sure if my endorphins were sold on another planet I would have a restless afterlife. I mean maybe not, but I don’t want to risk it.

                2. Heroin might be less painful than bears, or the time period preceeding death by exposure.

                  Aliens ? I have no clue.

                3. Does it really matter if it’s bears or aliens or exposure?

                  It depends on what the aliens do to you before they let you die? If it’s bears or exposure, at least you’ve provided food to the local wildlife.

            2. You might want to reconsider; people with large doses of heroin tend to just stay put, and you probably don’t want some busybody finding you and ruining your death by calling for EMS. Hike in clearheaded, then dose yourself.

        2. Is “high” the right word for that?

          1. Rocky Mountain High

        3. “I also plan to be very very high”

          John Denver Approves

          (although he did it *my way*)

  11. ” to take control of their ultimate fate and retain a little dignity.”

    Yes, but – re: HS Thompson – i’m not sure if having a buckshot-breakfast while your children are visiting is the portrait of ‘dignity’.

    A kid i knew in highschool did something similar, and he did it in his parent’s bedroom. Obviously, its a statement, and not the nicest one.

    I think ‘skydiving accidents’ are a little classier.

    1. I knew a kid in high school who laid down on the rail road tracks. Effective, but who knew he harbored such hatred of the highway department (the ones who ended up cleaning up the mile long mess).

    2. The only method I would even consider is some sort of painless drug. And I don’t expect to get it from some doctor or bureaucrat.

      1. Just slit your wrists in the bathtub. Everything washes down the drain. No cleanup apart from the body bag.

  12. By the way, if Hunter Thompson is dead, who’s been posting under the name “Agile Cyborg”?

    1. For shame.

      Thompson’s writing was quasi lucid even at its most depraved. And he generally kept his sexual tendencies under wraps.

      The Cyborg seems to have been programmed by/haunted by William S. Burroughs on one of his Yage-binges

  13. I think using Thompson as your example is not a good one. It’s hardly empowering to kill yourself because your drug addled body is collapsing on itself and you have the liver of a 90 year old at the age of 67.

    It’s certainly his right to kill himself, but treating the death of a man who’d basically ruined himself as if it’s somehow a positive is pretty gross. It’s also not as if he was dying of some terminal disease, he was just broken and depressed.

    1. And was he likely to become fixed and happy?

    2. So what?

      The point is that it’s his choice to end his life. Period. You might not agree with how or why, but that’s not relevant.

    3. He’d had hip surgery, and couldn’t move around very well in addition to other age-related problems (which, I concede, probably weren’t helped by his past drug abuse). He was more and more housebound, which if you know more about him you’d know that’s just a death sentence for him. He loved to get out and about, especially to go outside on his property and shoot guns or blow things up. His note said it all “No more fun…” Can you blame him? I don’t. I’d do the same thing.

  14. Either it will be a relative (heir) or a (government-paid) doctor initiating this totally non-coercive “conversation.”

    They can always leave it all to the Pope.

    Would that make you happy?

    1. Jonathan Haidt was right! Conservatives can pass the ideological Turing test, but progs (and cosmotarians) cannot.

  15. Conservatives can pass the ideological Turing test, but progs (and cosmotarians) cannot.

    Sure, whatever, you preening dipshit.

    Keep kicking that strawman until he surrenders.

    1. Strawman? Like saying that I’d totally be cool with suicide if it wasn’t for the Pope?

  16. Questioning the effectiveness [point] of intensive last-ditch “end of life care” is exactly the same as a murder for hire scheme.

    1. Hmmm…you’re aware of the distinction between rejecting extraordinary measures to prolong life, on the one hand, and having kindly Doctor Mueller inject you with a fatal poison, on the other hand?

  17. You already claimed the discussion will be coercively initiated by someone with a pecuniary interest in the outcome.

    “They’ll do your granny in for her hat.”

  18. Have you lived long enough to satisfy both nature and glory, and are ready to check out on your own terms, like a man?

    Then come on down to Wild Bill’s Libertarian Suicide Theme Park!

    We’ve got skydiving without a parachute, cornered at the Alamo, storming the beaches at Iwo Jima, hookers and blow in a highway motel, electrocution, group Russian Roulette, getting hit by a freight train, ideological martyrdom scenarios, and so much more!

    1. Hookers and blow please!

    2. I’m suddently VERY interested in committing suicide…

      1. The problem is you can only do it once, so choose carefully.

    3. Shut up and take my money!

    4. Ooh! Ohh! “Cornered at the Alamo!” But you’re gonna have a hard time finding actors, because I’m takin’ as many damn Mexicans as I can with me!

    5. “Wild Bill’s Libertarian Suicide Theme Park!”

      Naturally, the main competition would be the left wing’s “Ethical Suicide Parlors

      “There was a Howard Johnson’s next door to every Ethical Suicide Parlor, and vice versa. The Howard Johnson’s had an orange roof and the Suicide Parlor had a purple roof, but they were both the Government. Practically everything was the Government…

      All Hostesses were virgins. They also had to hold advanced degrees in psychology and nursing. They also had to be plump and rosy, and at least six feet tall…

      Their uniforms were white lipstick, heavy eye makeup, purple body stockings with nothing underneath, and black-leather boots… In a really good week, say the one before Christmas, they might put sixty people to sleep. It was done with a hypodermic syringe.”

      – From Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

      1. At Wild Bill’s, you can die like a man; hand-to-hand combat (with an angry bull), mining accidents, explosions, boob suffocation, chainsaw dismemberment, a fat girl sitting on your face, etc.

        Vonnegut’s deal sound like some creepy leftwing creation of the state. I’ll have no competition from those bozos.

  19. “I have a .357 Magnum.”

    I can see where he’s coming from, but if an open casket funeral is something you want, you may want to consider a different caliber.

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  23. If I were to commit suicide, I was thinking of heading north in the winter, getting drunk, then freezing to death. While this would seem to be a little cleaner than blower your brains out, I haven’t tested it.

    1. Um…”blowing”

  24. A wrinkle of all of this is when an elderly, or simply disabled person, is getting huge amounts of subsidy. The prime example for me is my father, who – due to failed kidneys – sucked $250,000 worth of taxpayer dollars, but felt it was perfectly his call when he’d stop dialyzing and end it (his heart disintegrated before he could exercise any sort of plan). It’s pretty hard to justify staying alive on coerced dollars from other people only to choose when you want to peg out. It’s a primary problem of collectivism – the starkest of examples of moral hazards.

    I respected and miss my father, but I have a hard time justifying his using hundreds of thousands of dollars from other people to keep himself alive, continued to smoke and other bad habits, and felt he could end it when he wanted to. Without that subsidy he’d have been dead sooner. Simply should be kept in mind as to what sort of society we want and what sort of twisted obligations are set up with coercion and subsidy.

  25. I personally hope suicide remains illegal….that way the government will remain ineptly powerless to stop it. hehe.

  26. No doubt the idea offends some, I wonder why it does, after all, the individual is choosing, for what they find to be good and sufficient reason, to “check out”. They make this decision for themselves only, taking nobody with them.

    Obviously,”free will” and the exercise thereof is grievously offensive to some. I wonder as to why such know it all types don’t simply dry up and blow away.

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