FYI Daily

The Long, Long (Too Long?) Goodbye

Last updated: May 25, 2012

LA MANO DERECHA DE MI MADRE

It's happening to millions, maybe you. It's happening to New York Magazine writer Michael Wolff, 58: witnessing a loved one's inexorably slow, modern-medicine-propped decline and suffering that endlessly stops short of death.

In a moving, angry, don't-miss read, Wolff chronicles how his mother, 86, survives medical crisis after crisis, each time with less and less of her mental faculties and physical abilities. Her misery mounts, her family's stress skyrockets about where she'll live and how she'll be cared for, and the costs to everyone involved -- including the American people, thanks to Medicare -- defy the imagination.

"Human carnage," he calls it.

"The traditional exits, of a sudden heart attack, of dying in one's sleep, of unreasonably dropping dead in the street, of even a terminal illness, are now exotic ways of going. The longer you live, the longer it will take to die," he writes. "Part of the advance in life expectancy is that we have technologically inhibited the ultimate event."

Which may sound wonderful in theory but doesn't usually work out that way. A doctor calls his mom, "like a lot of people, a dwindler."

A classic baby boomer, Wolff is hopeful that the sheer mass of his generation will find a better path: "We will surely, we must surely, find a better, cheaper, quicker, kinder way out."

Ultimately, Wolff wishes families had "the ability to make a fair case of enough being enough, of the end's, de facto, having come." He wishes that "death panels" -- the name given the proposal doctors receive Medicare reimbursement for end-of-life counseling, not actually panels that would decide anyones fate -- had been dubbed "deliverance panels."

He describes the "nuts" alternative to allowing families to "make the case" when "enough is enough": "to look forward to paying trillions and to bankrupting the nation as well as our souls as we endure the suffering of our parents and our inability to help them get where they're going. The single greatest pressure on health care is the disproportionate resources devoted to the elderly, to not just the old, but to the old old, and yet no one says what all old children of old parents know: This is not just wrongheaded but steals the life from everyone involved."

His language is vivid, the ideas are provocative -- and the heartbreaking situation isn't going away any time soon.

Image by Flickr user El Secretario, used under a Creative Commons license.