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Guest Opinion: Life — and death — by choice

There is a nationally growing movement called the Death Cafe. The grim title belies its subject: choice in death. Mostly seniors gather to discuss how they want to die. The belief is that open discussions of possibilities and choice increase the quality of life here and now. Why not a group in Ashland? Why not call it Happy Endings Inc.?

This is the civil rights issue of our time.

We are blessed in Oregon to have passed a physician-assisted suicide law. For those who are terminally ill this is a very good and sane thing. But what about seniors who are not terminally ill? What about an elder who feels their life is over and remaining alive does no one any good? What if they've accomplished what they set out in life to do and are ready to go?

Why will doctors not even discuss methods of suicide that will be effective with these people, often leaving them to fail in botched attempts? The American attitude toward suicide puts unsuccessfully trying to take one's life on a par with a criminal act.

But our culture of death allows the medical, insurance and legal industries to decide when it's OK to go. Why is that? Why do social mores held by a few decide for everyone?

In a country founded on freedom of choice, where has it gone? A very high percentage of suicide attempts fail, then life is worse than before, sometimes resulting in self-mutilation. It is wrong that we have a growing number of self-mutilated, suffering seniors who try the wrong way, only to greatly increase their desire to go peacefully and without pain.

The merciless, unjust practice of keeping the elderly alive, no matter what, is not how we should repay the generation that survived the Great Depression and World War II. It's certainly not the way most elders want to spend their final days: hooked up to machines, draining the family of any financial resources. Thank goodness we've at least seen fit to allow people to end physical pain and suffering with the physician-assisted suicide law.

But most families don't even discuss death. To whom can elders turn? Where are the warnings of what not to do? How do you deal with the physical body's reflexive will to live that tries to stop you at the crucial moment? It is not easy to take your life. Even the infamous “death cocktail” doesn't always work.

Why do antiquated social mores and medieval religious beliefs control this crucial decision we all face in the 21st century? We are a death-terrified nation denying old age in every absurd way possible, worshiping the blissful ignorance of youth. And that's what we end up with.

Death is a downer subject for media, a taboo subject, generally, unless sensationalized. Yet as a culture we refuse to take the fear out of death for ourselves and others. Zillions of dollars are made from the terror of death.

For those concerned about greedy children “putting down” parents for the inheritance, there are many laws that protect elders from that. Where's the concern about seniors being kept alive too long for the sake of commercial greed? In America, that's big business.

Choice is sacred. It's the greatest achievement of mankind, born of freedom. We must continually fight for it with our lives here and now! Why can't those who believe in self-death at the right time, in old age, be free to safely go? Those who feel it's not right, stay! Where's separation of church and state?

Capitalism gone crazy makes billions off our death denial. The race to be “vital” with super longevity is pathetic. If these are the golden years, where is the gold going? We're too distracted by our cellphones while racing to the gym to notice wisdom calling.

With all our technology at hand we haven't learned the difference between physical and mental youth. Pursuing physical youth immoderately makes us ridiculous. Accepting that mental youth can come only after the rare, hard-earned knowledge of life is the golden wisdom of old age. It's life's greatest prize. Once won, why not be allowed to move on? Let's begin with liberty and choice.

Go boomers! You've been given so much. Live and be fruitful. But remember this issue. After all, you're next.

Leah E.V. Ireland is available at P.O. Box 284, Ashland.