Breakfast TV News presenter Eamonn Holmes has been widely quoted in the media for openly saying that he would prefer a medically assisted death if he developed dementia. A Sun on Sunday article strongly supports him. A Daily Mail article also covered the story, its comments show strong support for Eamonn’s view. Describing his fear of dementia he says:
“It’s what everyone dreads. It’s a long, lonely walk — one I would never want to go on.
“I genuinely say to my children and my wife, ‘Take me to Switzerland and press the red button. That’s what I want’.
While MDMD sympathises strongly with Mr Holmes, he, and people sharing his view, need to investigate his wish a little more carefully. Euthanasia is not an option in Switzerland. You can’t just “take someone to Switzerland and press a button”. The person themselves must make the request for a medically assisted death; must have the mental capacity to make a life ending decision; and must take the final life-ending action themselves, in full knowledge that it will kill them. This is possible in the earlier stages of dementia, but not in the latter stages when mental capacity is lost. Choosing exactly when to make that final choice is very difficult for dementia sufferers, as described by MDMD supporter and campaigner Alex Pandolfo, who himself suffers from Alzheimer’s and has the green light to go to Switzerland for an assisted suicide when he chooses. Sufferers understandably want to continue living, even with disabilities, as long as they consider their quality of life to be acceptable, but if they want an assisted death in Switzerland they need to take action to end their life before they lose their mental capacity.
Dementia is now the leading cause of death in England and Wales. People increasingly realise how unpleasant the final stages can be, both for the dying person, and for those who witness the person they knew ceasing to exist long before they actually die.
Sun on Sunday columnist Karren Brady makes a strong case in support of Eamonn Holmes’ position. In her piece titled “Dementia sufferers should not have to leave the country to die with dignity“, she says:
“I fervently hope that in the not-too-distant future it will be possible — when we are young enough, fit enough, and still in our “right minds” — to fill out a form or card in the same way we do now with organ donation declaring our end-of-life wishes.”
This is similar to MDMD’s suggestion of an extended advance decision. Such a document would clearly demonstrate that the person had considered this option carefully for a long time, rather than being coerced into requesting an assisted death when they were vulnerable. However, MDMD propose that a dementia sufferer would need to take their final life-ending action while they still have the mental capacity to understand the action they are taking, as is the case in Switzerland. There are a number of reasons for this:
- Asking others to decide when to end your life is a big ask. Doctors and relatives could be understandably reluctant to carry out your wishes if you were unable to clearly and unambiguously re-confirm your wish at the time of assisted death. (MDMD understand that in Belgium, where this is possible, in practice it is rarely carried out – meaning that the person’s wishes are not always carried out.)
- Cases in the Netherlands demonstrate the problems that can arise with conflict between a dementia sufferer’s earlier clear written request for euthanasia, and their apparent change of mind when they have lost capacity to understand their situation.
- There needs to be absolutely no doubt that the person hasn’t truly changed their mind, but forgotten to change their advance request.
MDMD thank Eamonn Holmes for the publicity he has given to this important issue. His comments emphasise that although dementia is a terminal illness, proposals for a right to die law which is restricted to those within six months of dying and who retain mental capacity, would not be of use to those suffering this common, but widely feared form of death. MDMD believe that we need a broader approach that allows those dying of dementia to have the good death they wish for.