I just read novelist Amy Bloom’s brief memoir, In Love, about her husband, Brian Ameche, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and decided he’d rather take matters into his own hands and his life rather than face the “long goodbye” of dementia.
Although it may be easy enough to kill yourself—guns, razor blades, high heights, etc.—such methods are very messy and traumatic for survivors. Brian rejected those ideas and asked his wife to help him find a path to assisted suicide. She complied, of course, respecting his right to choose to end his life.
But such a path is not so easy in the individual-freedom-is-everything United States. Only a handful of states have any type of assisted suicide, and for those that do you must be a resident of that state, mentally competent, and be declared by a medical professional to have less than six months to live. Brian had a lot longer than that to live. Most people with Alzheimer’s live 8-10 years after diagnosis.
There is also no straightforward path to acquiring a prescription for a supply of drugs lethal enough to kill you. No doctor will write you that prescription. Buy fentanyl on the street? Good luck with that. Who knows what you’re really getting. And if you help someone commit suicide—by giving them the drugs or the glass of water to wash them down, for example, you will likely be charged with a crime.
After a lot of documentation and hoop-jumping, Brian ended up being approved for “accompanied suicide” by an organization headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland called Dignitas—for a fee of about ten thousand dollars. Forget about dying in your bed at home surrounded by loved ones, Brian; you’ve got to take a transatlantic flight to a city you’ve never been to, book yourself into a hotel while all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, and then go to their facility to die by drinking a drug cocktail. Not to mention that Dignitas is a perk only for those who can afford it.
Bloom is an accomplished writer, well known in the literary world, and this memoir reflects her talent and skill. The narrative alternates between the story of her and Brian meeting and their early days together, his eventual diagnosis, his almost immediate decision afterward saying “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” and the painful and difficult journey of finding a way to fulfill Brian’s wishes.
Many people might shy away from reading such a book. Not me. I wrote about why I read this kind of book in a recent post: Why Read a Sad Story? I said that these types of stories “provide us with clues and tools on how to confront our own grief or tragedies. And most of all, stories that explore human suffering and adversity help to enhance our empathy for others, which seems in short supply these days.”
I had other reasons for picking up this memoir. My father, Bob Klein, died from Alzheimer’s, and it was painful and heartbreaking to witness his slow and inexorable demise and complete loss of personal dignity. He was a man of deep faith in his God, and would never have chosen suicide. But I remember the day before he was put into an assisted living facility, I tried to offer him an out. I wrote about that here: A Swim With My Dad. I don’t know what would have happened if he’d taken it.
I’ve also written a brief story, “Reservations,” about a man with Alzheimer’s who is still mentally competent and has quality time left. His son finds out his father has hired someone to kill him at a set date in the future.
I’m not obsessed with Alzheimer’s or even particularly worried, but I’m aware it could happen to me—as could any affliction or disaster—at any time. Paramount for me is to not burden my family. Am I prepared for what I must do if dementia is my future? I don’t know. I do know that writing, researching, and reading about it is actually a calming influence on me.