Drive towards 'immortality' means people aren't dying with dignity anymore

A physician says we are in denial about death and have unrealistic expectations of what hospitals can deliver at the end of life. Margaret Jennings reports.

IT’S a conversation we all need to have, because, sooner or later, it comes knocking at our door.

So, 56-year-old Cork physician, Seamus O’Mahony, has lifted the lid on a sensitive topic with his honest book about how we deal with death.

“Our society, to a great extent, is in denial — we don’t talk about it much, but it’s the one sure thing that’s going to happen to all of us and a lot of people that I deal with, they don’t die as good a death as they might have done — they’re dying in a busy hospital, surrounded by strangers in a bustling, noisy environment,” he says.

“It’s misguided to conceal the truth from a dying person. They may not have had the opportunity to settle their affairs, to pass on the baton to the next generation, to prepare themselves spiritually, and so on. 

"I think a lot of people might have difficulty about what I have to say, but it might trigger them to think about what they want.”

Make up your own mind by reading the book, which is out this week. Titled The Way We Die Now, O’Mahony — who is a gastroenterologist at Cork University Hospital — hopes it will wake us up to the “unrealistic expectations we have of what hospital and medicine and medical treatment can deliver at the end of life”.

While most public discussions on death are about palliative care, only 4% of people die in hospices in this country, while 48% die in acute hospitals, where O’Mahony has spent his 32-year career so far.

He beautifully describes the “ideal” fantasy death we create for ourselves — surrounded by family at home, saying goodbye with one last sigh, after a fulfilling life. But what he sees daily is far removed from that.

“Yes, we do all buy into it — this modern ideal of the good death — that it’s a journey and a very spiritual thing. But the reality is that most people die after a long, chronic illness. 

"They don’t suddenly go from being fully active and independent, one day, to dying the next — it’s a slow, gradual process for most.”

Our denial is laced with “modern evangelical atheism”, he says, leaving us spiritually rudderless about how to deal with our inevitable end. 

He writes of his uncle, a priest who believed he would join his parents in Heaven. 

“That must be a phenomenal strength to have, if you are facing death. 

"For our secular society, much of the anxiety and collective neurosis is around that all that we can see for ourselves is oblivion.

“Western society is now becoming obsessed with increasing longevity. 

"Maintaining health, at all costs, and increasing longevity, is an end in itself, and that’s driven, in a way, by the belief most people have, that ‘this is it — there isn’t anything else’. 

"So, you’ve got to stay here for as long as possible, because there’s nothing after this.”

This drive towards “immortality” is one of the issues in the book, as is what he considers a false belief, adopted enthusiastically by the ‘baby boomers’ in their 60s and 70s, that, as longevity increases, so too does health, so that people die suddenly after a long, healthy life.

“You see all these ads of jogging centenarians and the elderly are bombarded with these images of old age as a period of health and activity, doing all these things, but that’s not the reality about longevity.”

So, people can’t stall ill-health with a good lifestyle? 

“To a certain extent, yes, but the body, regardless of how well we treat it, is going to break down and, these days, it tends to do so slowly. 

"Our bodies aren’t machines. It’s not like you can put in a new battery and away you go again. Health is finite and living uses it up.”

His own dad died suddenly of cardiac arrest, aged 71. His mother, who is in her 80s, “is independent and active and still drives, so is having a healthy old age, which is good.”

Is O’Mahony frightened of death? 

“I think most people are, and particularly as you get older, but I’m not in the Woody Allen league. I’m not phobic!”

He’s a family man, with two adult children and so life goes on. 

He stays active, walking and playing five-a–side football, and found the writing of the book “incredibly therapeutic”.

“There are no simple answers, but I’m arguing for a degree of honesty amongst us all and a lowering of expectation on the part of society on what medicine can deliver.”

* The Way We Die Now, published by Head of Zeus, is available in shops this week

Senior art exhibit

As part of the month-long Bealtaine Festival, which celebrates creativity as we age, students of the senior art course at Cork’s Lewis Glucksman Gallery, hold an exhibition there on May 24-29.

Drive towards 'immortality' means people aren't dying with dignity anymore

Over six weekly sessions, participants have been developing paintings that focus on the history of The Cork Butter Exchange Band, a mainstay of the Cork artistic scene since the 1800s including the musical instruments and repertoire. 

The Butter Exchange Band will perform at the gallery May 28. 

The senior community programme is dedicated to involving seniors in all kinds of activities in the gallery with an emphasis on social, fun and creative encounters. 021-4901844.

Moving on

Downsizing the Family Home: What to Save, What to Let Go,

Marni Jameson, €11.46

Drive towards 'immortality' means people aren't dying with dignity anymore

Are you at the empty nest stage and want to declutter your home or sell up for a smaller place? 

Or perhaps you need to do the job for your aged parents? 

Or sadly, your parents have passed away? 

The author, a Florida-based, home-design columnist and award-winning journalist says the difficult, emotional journey of downsizing your, or your ageing parents’ home is a rite of passage almost no one will escape. 

Although culturally there may be some differences in the context, we’re told Jameson tries to sensitively guide readers through the process, using her own personal experience, from opening that first closet, to sorting through possessions .

Ageing quote

The older one grows, the more one likes indecency

— Writer Virginia Woolf

Silver surfer

See the ‘hot flushes’ advert due on your TV screen next week 


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