Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Fear of the nursing home – a reason to die?


Reports today that Perth pensioner, Herbert Erickson may have committed suicide have once again been used falsely to raise the debate on euthanasia in Western Australia.

Mr Erickson smothered his partner, Julie Kuhn in January this year in their Armidale home. Ms Kuhn had debilitating arthritis, was confined to a wheelchair and had recently suffered a stroke. Mr Erickson was her carer. 

Three weeks ago, Mr Erickson pleaded guilty to a charge of murder and was to be sentenced in January next, according to a report in The Australian.

I gave an interview to Channel Seven news in Perth at the time of Ms Kuhn’s death. I normally don’t comment on such matters (as I did then and am now) but I do so because, true to form and right on cue, both then and now, in the very midst of a situation of grief and sadness, Philip Nitschke chimes in with his argument that this would all somehow have been better if the laws had allowed them to die by euthanasia or assisted suicide. 

The reports last January painted a picture of deep tragedy and personal desperation. Erickson smothered Kuhn as part of a suicide pact; he then killed his dogs before a failed attempt to electrocute himself. A crime has been committed, certainly, but I argued then as I would now that leniency should be applied in sentencing. 

Mr Erickson’s lawyer told The Australian that the events of this year were weighing heavily on his mind and that his family were worried about his mental state. The lawyer also said that Erickson did not want to be seen as a torchbearer of the euthanasia debate; but unfortunately, that horse has already bolted. 

But the talk of euthanasia as a remedy is way off the mark. According to the report, the couple’s greatest fear was going into a nursing home. This struck me as deeply troubling. Many will fear the change that moving to a nursing home might bring and it is a normal concern. But how did it so trouble this couple that they sought a double suicide? 

I’ve no doubt this was genuine just as it is most likely that their families were probably unaware of the depth of their concerns. But the bigger questions really are about the disconnect in our social structures that have let these people down in some very fundamental ways. 

No-one is to blame; but let us not allow this tragedy to pass without asking the deeper, difficult questions; without seeking the difficult, but necessary answers. 

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