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June 18, 2008

Quantity vs. Quality

Tom McLaughlin

For the first time, it was announced recently, the life expectancy in the United States reached above 78 years old. Some may rejoice at this news, but one must be very careful because the quantity of life may have increased but the quality of life has decreased. This quality not only affects the individual who has reached the golden age mark, but the many people who care for him or her.


A daughter, whose father was on life support and beyond all hope, elected to keep him alive. It was costing hundreds of thousand of dollars. She mortgaged the house, spent the college fund and drove her family into bankruptcy. Her husband could only stand by and watch without comprehension waiting for the old man, who he barely knew, to die. His security was gone and he would have to rebuild the life he had worked so hard for. As of this writing, the aged gentleman was still with us.


The daughter had chosen to ignore the living will that was signed, notarized and in proper form asking that when there was no hope for his survival that life support systems be removed. I asked the doctor why he didn’t pull the plug if all legal papers were in order. “I am afraid of getting sued,” he replied.


Another daughter placed her mother in an assisted living home. The cost, here on the Eastern Shore, was about $6,000 per month. She lived and worked in the Washington area and had a second home here in Ocean Pines. She came to visit her mom as often as she could.


“I feel so guilty” (that I can’t visit more often) she told me. Racked with guilt and going through her own retirement funds, I held her in the Ocean Pines pool as she wept. “I have to sell the Pines house to keep her there but with the economy…” she trailed off.


Not being able to afford the assisted living costs, a son built an addition to his house for his mom with help of friends. A wanderer, a symptom of Alzheimer’s, his son placed locks and bolts on every door and window. Still, she managed to escape and told the neighbors she was being abused. Not knowing the circumstances, they called the police who turned her over to Social Services. They now have the indignity of being visited once a week by these people. A blue collar couple who tried to do everything correctly, the wife has had to quit her job in order to stay home with her.


I was lucky. As a writer, I could take care of my Mom and Dad while working for a local newspaper, writing articles for magazines and other pursuits. Today, I look back at those three years and say: “What the hell was that?”


But, I missed my daughter’s formative high school years. She lived with her mom and I went up once a month to see her. Yet, I still feel guilty for that huge omission in my life. Many people have told me there will be a special place in heaven for me – whatever that means. Like I say, compared to many others, I was lucky.


We are driven by the idea that we can extend life through medicine. But that quantity of life, whether caused by Alzheimer’s, tubes and machines, or pills, drags down the lives of so many others. Children can’t go to college or are saddled with thousands of dollars of debt. Retirements are postpones or are lived out close to the poverty level and some people live in a guilt-ridden stage, making their lives and others miserable.


The great Democratic leader Hubert Humphrey stated: “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”


It is long passed time for our government to shift funds away from the immoral war in Iraq and to those in the “twilight of life... And a Democratic president and filibuster-proof Congress is the only way that will happen.


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