Christine was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The BBC documentary series One Life gave a personal insight into the effect of the disease on both the sufferer and the family around them, as they endeavour to cope with this deliberating illness. Christine (mostly referred to as Chris in the documentary) is resolute in her determination to remain independent. This, however, becomes increasingly difficult as the disease becomes progressively worse.
Alzheimer’s disease affects more than 400,000 people in the UK, making it the most common form of dementia. It is a disease which is mostly associated with old age, however, people like Christine (65 at the time the programme was made) may experience it earlier in life. It affects both the short and long term memory, as the brain becomes progressively damaged causing patients to become forgetful, frustrated, confused and withdrawn.
The documentary follows Christine over a six month period as she tirelessly trying to keep on top of day to day activities. She does this by keeping extensive diaries, posting messages on her notice boards and writing endless post-it notes to herself. Her daughter Fiona is instrumental in Christine’s care, taking her to visit her doctor at the hospital for her memory tests and being a constant watchful eye over here basic needs. As the disease gets worse it becomes increasingly difficult for both of them. Fiona describes it as a “really slow grieving process”. The more the Alzheimer’s progresses the more she feels she is slowly losing a little bit of her mother to the disease. It also becomes more difficult for Christine, as she becomes increasingly frustrated with being told she has forgotten something or has done something wrong.
As a teaching resource, the section 00:39:01 to the end would be particularly useful when discussing both the ethical dilemmas that surround Alzheimer’s patients and issues concerned with euthanasia. Bear in mind, however, that the issue may have direct relevance to members of a class and appropriate sensitivity is necessary.
Christine talks of her distress of losing the ability to “distinguish between right from wrong”, and that she is so desperate to “keep a grip on reality”, that when she realises she hasn’t she questions “why carry on?” Her thoughts turn towards euthanasia as she is left with an enormous dread that her only other alternative is to be moved in to a care home once her condition progresses; “voluntary euthanasia is the best way forward for someone like me when I get really decrepid, because I want to be able to choose my own going, my own exit”. Christine also believes that euthanasia would be the best decision for everyone else, especially for her daughter Fiona. However Fiona discusses with her mother how and when such a decision could be made. Christine “the problem I have now is, I have realised is, when do I do it? Every time I think we’ll put an end to it, I desperately want to see tomorrow. I want to see my children, I want to go for a walk”
Alzheimer’s disease is a dreadful, debilitating disease. It destroys many of the personality and behavioural traits friends and family associate with that person, and thus strikes at the very heart of that human’s personhood. As such this raises questions regards the type and amount of care provided for patients with severe dementia. Christine, initially aware of the demise of her health, carefully considers her future options. When faced with a future where all recognisable features of herself will slowly disappear, she believes that to end it now would not only benefit herself, but would also prevent a future of stress and stain on her daughter Fiona, and ultimately prevent any further demand she would have on the healthcare system. The issue of voluntary euthanasia (when a patient actively requests for a doctor to end their life) has two central conflicting ethical arguments:
- Euthanasia appears to optimise a patient’s principle of autonomy. “the ability to choose and the freedom to choose between competing conceptions of how to live. It is only the exercise of autonomy that our lives become any real sense our own. The ending of our lives determines life’s final shape and meaning, both for ourselves and in the eyes of others. When we are denied control at the end of our lives, we are denied autonomy.” Professor John Harris, Bioethicist and Philosopher, University of Manchester (House of Lords Select Committee on the Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Bill – Volume 1 report)
- ‘The sanctity of human Life’. Assisted euthanasia implies that there will be an active taking of human life by another person. Many argue that this is wrong. These arguments are based on the belief that life is a God-given right and that under no circumstances may it be taken by others.
In the context of sufferers of Alzheimer’s, it is imperative for such discussions to appreciate the ever changing mental state of the patient. As Fiona concludes; despite her mother still voicing her thoughts about euthanasia they have become much less planned as she has become much happier in her own world, as if the Alzheimer’s has taken over. And so this documentary demonstrates the extreme torment such a disease can cause for sufferers and their family, and how it demands the up most of sensitivity when dealing with such circumstances.
This documentary raises two very different ethical issues for discussion. On the one hand, voluntary euthanasia is patient-centred, that when faced with such a horrific disease patients may find themselves contemplating even the most dramtic of options. While on the other, diseases associated with ageing raise wider issues for society to consider:
- What level of care should be provided?
- How will the cost of the care be paid for?
- How will resources be allocated?
- Who is responsible for the care? The family? The welfare system?
The issues that surround ageing can be found in the A level UK curriculium – AQA
BBC 1 One Life – My Life on a post-it note was first broadcast on Tuesday 09th May 2006 at 22:35 (55Minutes) and repeated again on BBC 1 22nd November 2006 at 22:40. TRILT identifier 0059353B