Friday, October 21, 2005

Are you planning on Getting Older?

We have learned that many of the horror stories about New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina were not true.

But there's are several interesting stories that could cause those of us who plan on growing a "whole lot older" to think about.

The stories from Memorial Hospital depicted an overwhelmed and increasingly desperate staff repeatedly discussing: "euthanizing older patients" they thought might not survive the ordeal. Fran Butler, a nurse manager at Memorial, told CNN that her "nurses wanted to know what was the plan." Were they supposed to put people out of their misery? Dr. Bryant King has told authorities about similar discussions among doctors, adding that he thinks that the matter went beyond mere talk.

I read today that these allegations have prompted Louisiana's Attorney General to open an investigation into what happened at Memorial Hospital. Were the sick euthanized? We do know patients in one Nursing Home were left to die by the owners of the facility and the staff. The owners of the Nursing Home were arrested.

Some of the allegations may prove false. But the issues they raise are not going away. That's because of three facts:

First, our population is aging, and aging populations spend more of their resources on health care than younger ones do.

Second, the cost of health care is rising faster than almost any other sector of our economy as anyone who has been in a hospital recently knows. Among the resources required to care for an aging population are the time and efforts of younger people. You can't care for the sick and elderly simply by throwing money at the problem, at least not if "quality of life" means anything.

Third is the fact that in our secular culture, respect for the sanctity of life, especially at its end, has weakened. The most obvious example, of course, is physician-assisted suicide, but an even greater threat is what's called "Futile-Care Theory."

As bioethics writer Wesley Smith describes it, this theory gives doctors and hospitals -- not patients and their families-- "the right to declare which of us have lives worth living and therefore worth treating medically, and which of us do not.

I t's a very short leap from what Smith calls "one of the hottest and most-dangerous topics in contemporary bioethics" to what is alleged to have happened in New Orleans.

We already live in a society where millions of our families are faced with the task of caring for frail and incapacitated elders. Th question has been raised: " As the numbers increase, an unqualified respect for the sanctity of human life may come to be seen as a"luxury" we can no longer afford."