No one can live for ever

She has a living will, a suicide kit and has begged her son to get rid of her. Virginia Ironside explains why she believes in the right to die - when she chooses
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Indy Lifestyle Online

At the back of a drawer stuffed with old jerseys and forgotten tops I have a very, very old bottle of red-and-green capsules. They must be way past their sell-by date, but I hope that if I ever wish to bump myself off they will join various over-the-counter drugs to add to the lethal cocktail that I will dose myself with. It's comforting to know that they're there.

At the back of a drawer stuffed with old jerseys and forgotten tops I have a very, very old bottle of red-and-green capsules. They must be way past their sell-by date, but I hope that if I ever wish to bump myself off they will join various over-the-counter drugs to add to the lethal cocktail that I will dose myself with. It's comforting to know that they're there.

Because I'm one of the many people over 60 who, like 80-year-old Baroness Warnock, just can't see what on earth is wrong with the idea of grabbing an easy death when the time comes. I can't think of any of my contemporaries who, when asked about dying, don't say: "It's not death itself I fear, it's the turning into a vegetable, Alzheimer's, going gaga, losing my faculties. I only hope the doctors turn me off before I get into that state."

I have a living will stashed in almost every room in my house, in my wallet, with my doctor, with my solicitor. My poor son has been told so many times how much I want him to get rid of me if I become a burden that I'm sometimes surprised he doesn't seize a cushion and do it now, just to shut me up.

I have seen too many people die miserable deaths. There was my grandmother and my great-aunt, both of whom spent months in hospital completely barking, terrified, seeing visions, imploring me to help them, swearing that the moment I left the ward the nurses took them to the basement and beat them up.

There was my mother, with cancer, and suicidally depressed (not because of the cancer - that rather perked her up). The doctors gave her transfusion after transfusion to keep her alive, and I had to beg them three times to give her a shot of morphine to end it all. When I told her, she just said: "Thank you, darling," and kissed my hand. And that was it.

I saw a friend on a life-support machine die recently. He was covered with tubes and wires, and had no hope at all of recovery; he was surrounded by people arguing for days over whether they should opt for an option known, apparently, as Power Off. Thank God the sensible people prevailed and he was put out of his misery.

What people are put through these days when it comes to death is worse than it is for animals - not that animals have a great time. When my cat was dying, I took him to the vet to be put down. In this new, extraordinary climate of "right to live", however, even the vet was reluctant. The poor animal had to live in pain for three more weeks before, on a Sunday night, he half-expired, and the emergency vet told me that I had a "very big decision to make". "I've made it!" I screamed. "Put him out of his misery now!"

Admittedly, I have a very matter-of-fact view of death, but this view hardens the older I get. I've always had a very low pain threshold when it comes to suffering, and a very high one when it comes to death. I've seen and experienced enough misery to know that death is often a very good friend. And what's the big deal, anyway? Several friends of mine have died over the last couple of years, and myriad more have been diagnosed with cancer. Every time there's a hushed voice, a silent tear... but I wake up every morning literally astonished that I'm still here, and amazed that so far I haven't got cancer. For heaven's sake, I've already lived far longer than most people were expected to 100 years ago. At 60, I feel I'm living on borrowed time and every day is a bonus.

As a 75-year-old friend said to me the other day, having just come away from a grisly candle-lit vigil beside an 85-year-old who's suffered hideously with Parkinson's for 10 years and has been dying of it for the last 10 days: "Why all this surprise over death? After all, you and me don't have a special relationship with it. What do these people expect? To live for ever? All the signs that we're going to die have been there from the day we were born."

When I hear of people of 75 being given chemotherapy, I feel irritated. Nearly half of spending on hospital and community health services in Britain is for people over 65 - and, frankly, it's just going to get worse. By 2040 the number of people over the age of 64 is expected to grow from 9.5 million to 15 million. It's a ghastly prospect.

In Britain, apparently, we have the most timorous and conservative right-to-die lobby in the world. The kindly Voluntary Euthanasia Society, which used more boldly to be called Exit - a far more radical name - is now keen to work only within the law. It actually refuses, for example, to give out the telephone number of Dignitas, the Dutch agency that helps people to bump themselves off when life gets too much. Sadly, it no longer produces a "How to kill yourself" booklet - and I was lucky to get its Guide to Self-Deliverance (great title!) in 1981, which lives alongside my ancient pills. ("You need two plastic bags, approximately three feet in diameter and 18 inches in width... Kitchen bin-liners are an obviously possibility." "For drugs and car exhaust... This requires a secure connection between the end of the exhaust pipe and a length of stout flexible hose that should fit over the exhaust pipe - vacuum-clearer hose appears to be suitable...")

Lady Warnock said that she would far rather die than be put into a nursing home and spend large sums of money that could be better used by her children. My thoughts exactly. And not only mine, but, increasingly, the thoughts of people who are getting older. I have friends of 75 who are still having to look after an old, bonkers parent, still staggering off to the nursing home to sit by the bedside of a wheezing semi-corpse. I have friends whose lives are dominated by elderly parents. I often give thanks to my parents for having had the consideration to die while I was still young enough to enjoy a life free from their affectionate but sometimes oppressive presence. It's not right that older people should hang around, clogging up the corridors, like guests at party who'll never go. How will young people ever have a chance to develop if they're forever shadowed by our ailing, brooding presences?

Proust said: "We are all but dead people, waiting to take up our posts." Us oldies have had years and years to get used to the idea of death. We shouldn't be so weedy about it; we shouldn't dread it. We should set a good example to the young, and teach them, too, to welcome death - when life gets too wretched - as the noble, dignified and interesting adventure that it is.

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