Choosing Time, Purpose and Meaning in Old Age

Article excerpt

Someone was banging on the upstairs door. My caregiver poked her head out to see who was there, and a gray-haired, middle-aged woman was at the door. With her was a younger man holding a notebook.

"We're looking for Bonnie Genevay," the woman said. I really was not in the mood for dealing with salespeople or people peddling religious tracts; I was prepared to be civil, but firm.

"How can I help you?" I asked. I was dressed in my best-purple slacks and a hot pink shirt-and my hair was even combed: I felt ready to send these folks on their entrepreneurial way. Then the woman asked if I was the Bonnie Genevay who was intending to commit suicide.

This momentarily threw me for a loop. "No, I'm not going to commit suicide," I said. "Where did you get that idea?"

"A friend of yours in Eastern Washington called us," they said. "We're from the mental health clinic at Harborview, and we're here to assess whether you're clinically depressed and may need our help with suicidal thoughts and ideation."

A Controlled Decision

The hackles rose on the back of my neck because, while I am ready to control the timing of my dying by stopping eating, I have no violent intentions for completing my life on this earth-which is what suicide means to me. I took a deep breath and, endeavoring to keep my voice calm, cool and collected (not my usual emotional condition!), tried to explain.

"I have great caregivers, and I am not clinically depressed," I said. "I know what I'm talking about because I was on staff at West Seattle Mental Health Clinic when the involuntary commitment law was first instituted in the State of Washington. I am of sound mind, and have as much help as I can use at this moment in time." (I briefly thought about telling them they could check back later with me on the helping thing-maybe they'd want to volunteer to be part of my care team!)

"I have a family that loves me and lots of friends. I was a therapist [who worked] with [the] elderly for 20 years and am doing very well for an old woman with arthritis, constant pain, constipation, peripheral neuropathy and blindness from glaucoma and macular degeneration."

What's Purposeful

I told my visitors about my line of thinking: I have decided to stop eating when I have no more quality of life and can no longer do what's meaningful to mereading, writing, gardening, laughing. I haven't been able to read books for five years, and I have great difficulty writing anymore, which is a monumental loss (pain doesn't create much poetic inspiration). And being bedbound is not fun.

I wound up my explanation, informing my "rescuers" that Cocie, my friend who had called them, is 82 years old, and she wants me to stay alive as long as she's alive because she has been a best friend since childhood and loves me. Earlier on, I had told Cocie the truth about my decision to stop eating (when the right time came) because I love her. I didn't want her to be shocked over news of my "sudden" death.

"Can I do anything else for you?" I asked them. They shook their heads, smiled at me and left.

My caregiver and I laughed over this remarkable interaction. I called Cocie the next day and we had a meaningful conversation. While Cocie would not do what I'm planning on doing, I believe she understands, on some deep level, that I need quality of life and a purposeful life while I am still alive.

[Sidebar]

While I am ready to control the timing of my dying by stopping eating, I have no violent intentions for completing my life on this earth.

[Sidebar]

I haven't been able to read books for five years, and I have great difficulty writing anymore, which is a monumental loss.

[Sidebar]

A Note from the Author

I wanted to share this story with Aging Today because many of you in ASA are my friends, and you mean a great deal to me (if this sounds like a love letter to ASA, be assured-it is! …