By Mary Prentis
As a twenty-four year old woman, I know it’s very rare to be blessed with three living grandparents. I have fond memories of special nights at their houses, exciting Florida days on their boat, and their support and attendance at various school functions and events. My grandparents have bandaged scraped knees, quieted my adolescent worries about the future, and continued to offer listening ears to my ever-changing quest in my twenties. Never once have I felt like my grandparents were a burden, or that my time spent with them has been a waste. Why? Unconditional love.
Yet increasingly we hear about misguided attempts to “love” our elderly relatives by helping them kill themselves, through physician assisted suicide. Though promoted as a way to relieve suffering, this is an unloving approach to a family member or friend. As a human family, we have a responsibility to see every person as a good, to love one another and show respect towards one another. That includes, first of all, respecting each other’s very lives.
My greatest fear about physician assisted suicide legislation is the way many proponents of this movement talk about it. They find that many people have turned to physician assisted suicide because they did not want to “burden” anyone or be a bother – and they think that’s perfectly acceptable.
It is bad enough that physician assisted suicide is now legal in some states for patients deemed to have a terminal illness. But the impact of that kind of message is far broader. Elderly people are extremely vulnerable to the message of those opposed to a culture of life.
In today’s busy and fast-paced world, the elderly may see technology and society expanding at staggering rates, and feel out of place or left out. What a terrible tragedy for those who have devoted their time generously and freely to their families, to believe that their family – even worse, all of society – sees them as an inconvenience and a burden. That message can easily infect their own attitudes about their personal worth, with deadly consequences – a process that some psychologists who work with seniors have called “acquiescent suicide.”
It is profoundly tragic to feel like little more than a burden to others. The elderly are our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. They offer us valuable knowledge from their many life experiences.
There are many ways to show appreciation for them. Spending time together is a simple way to show someone your love and appreciation. Opportunities abound: a visit to a nursing home for a round of Bingo, a Saturday afternoon delivering food to those who can’t leave their homes, or conversation and assistance in the grocery store.
Our choices in how we interact with others go a long way and can greatly affirm others in their dignity and sense of worth. Patience and understanding when dealing with elderly grandparents – or acquaintances and neighbors – shows them they are just the opposite of “burdens” on society. They are individuals worthy of our love, appreciation and help.
Some say assisted suicide is the compassionate choice but I disagree. Real compassion means “suffering with” and supporting those in need. It is shown in affirming each person’s value as an individual. As St. John Paul II said in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, that is “the way of love and true mercy” that each human being deserves.
Editor’s note. Mary Prentis is Staff Assistant for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This appeared at usccb.org.