When my time is up spare me the NHS bed

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The Independent Culture
WHEN I reach my sell-by date I shall certainly not hang around long enough to be starved to death in a NHS bed. Sinister reports that medical staff are practising involuntary euthanasia on geriatric patients to release hospital beds makes me more determined than ever to meet my end with the dignity of an Irraqua squaw.

Not for her, or me, the indignity of dentures, replacement hips, Zimmer frames or easy-care, machine-washable incontinence knickers. When she knew her time was up, Weeping Twig, heroine of the book I have just read about the work of 17th-century Jesuit missionaries in North America, and widow of the famous Irraqua warrior Two Elk Flint Claw, observed the customary traditions of her people. She said goodbye to her family without emotion, packed a folded blanket and some buffalo jerky into an embroidered pouch and walked slowly towards the great forest.

Weeping Twig was luckier than me in one respect. She had a great forest within walking distance. I shall have to make do with Battersea Park. But the basic principle stands. When you have nothing left to contribute, and when you are merely taking up shelf-space in a world whose natural resources are already limited, you should think about bowing out.

I heard a couple of women talking on the top of a bus the other day. "Of course, it was a terrible shock when Father died," said the first. "Oh my goodness, it must have been," said the other sympathetically. "How old was he?" "Ninety-seven," she replied.

Every time I hear a consultant geriatrician say that in 20 years' time 10 per cent of the population of Britain will be more than 100 years old, I shudder. What's the point of chalking up all those extra years if you have not got the energy to do anything more exciting with them than watch Kilroy? They say wisdom comes with age. Certainly one of the wisest people I ever met was an old lady up in Argyll who died last year, aged 95. Until she was 90 she swam every day in Loch Linnhe between May and September, wearing the green bathing-costume I had bought for her in Barkers' sale. She was interested in everything, read voraciously and was always writing letters to the newspapers. And then, quite suddenly, two years ago, she gave up. She said she was fed up with having to spend three hours in the bathroom every morning just to make herself function as a proper human being. She wrote to hospitals offering herself as a guinea-pig for medical research, without success. In the end, like Weeping Twig, she took to her bed, turned her face to the wall and allowed herself to die.

The saddest encounter I ever had with an old person, and the one that probably prompts me to feel the way I do about living too long, was in the summer of 1986. It was an Age Concern lunch at the Kensington Garden Hotel. In the foyer I noticed a small, frail, white-haired old lady, looking slightly lost. She had been unceremoniously dumped there by a younger woman with a red face and gumboots. I went up to the little old lady and asked if I could help. "Oh please, yes," she said. "Can you find the table I'm supposed to be sitting at?" Her name, she said, was Catherine Bramwell Booth, and of course I knew it. She was the granddaughter of General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, and a formidable force herself in the charity field.

"My live-in companion, Miss Rutherford, drove me up from the country," explained Miss Booth. "But unfortunately she wasn't invited to the lunch." Pity. If she had been I'd have had a word with that Miss Rutherford. I don't know what a live-in companion's official duties comprise, but making sure that your elderly employer does not go out to a charity lunch with nine long white whiskers sprouting from her chin must surely be one.

Better starve than dine with whiskers, say I.