Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Michael Banner - 08/08/2012

Good morning.

Two US companies announced earlier this week that they have shelved the testing of a particular drug. It had been the best hope for a treatment for Alzheimer’s. Many years work and more than a billion pounds of investment have come to naught, to the disappointment of the researchers involved and the doubtless greater disappointment of those in the very early stages of dementia. A long anticipated breakthrough has been cancelled.

It is ironic, of course, that it is the success of medicine, not its failure, which has created what is increasingly referred to as the problem of old age. The success of medicine in dealing with the acute conditions which killed our grandparents (such as pneumonia and influenza), has contributed to a much extended life expectancy. But with that extension comes a new problem – whereas dying used to be, very often, a relatively short episode at the end of an otherwise healthy life, now more than 40% of us can expect not this pathway towards death, but instead a long and steady decline into dependence, debility and possibly dementia. We will live much longer, but we will probably dwindle long before we die – and this at a time when changing demographics leave a smaller cohort of those middle-aged children on whom the burden of care for the frail elderly traditionally falls. Medical science is one of the great triumphs of the last hundred years – but the challenge of how to cope with the burden of long dwindling deaths is not one which medicine can itself solve, at least any time soon.

Christ’s death was a torture and a torment – and yet he is depicted as dying well, forgiving those who had conspired against him, commending his mother to the care of a disciple, and his own soul to God. Christians have always regarded this death as exemplary – but equally reckoned with the fact that for all others apart from Christ, dying well could not and should not be a solitary affair, but would have to rely crucially on the support and companionship of our fellows. Taking this point seriously, Dame Cicely Saunders responded to the bleak state of provision for the terminally ill some fifty years ago, with the founding of the hospice movement. It has transformed especially the care of those in the very last stages of cancer by providing this very companionship.

We now face, however, a new and different challenge. The experience of the growing number of those who will endure a long dying will be a bitter one, as will the experience of the few who typically bear the heavy burden of care, unless we recognise a shared social responsibility to find radically new and effective ways to support and sustain those declining towards death. We can keep our fingers crossed that science will come to the rescue; but if and when it does, it will almost certainly be much too late for most of us.

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