Dignitas suicide: British man ends his life at Swiss clinic as he could not face dementia By Andrew Gregory
He chose to travel to the controversial Dignitas clinic because he could not face the agony of the incurable disease
|Dignitas room: A bed in the controversial clinic|
A British man has become the first dementia sufferer to die at a controversial suicide clinic.
The 83-year-old man ended his life at Dignitas in Switzerland because he could not face the agony of the progressive, incurable disease.
He also wanted to spare those closest to him from any burden and strain his illness might put on them.
The unnamed man, said to be from a wealthy professional background, was in the early stages of dementia.
He is believed to be the first to use the clinic’s services solely because of dementia.
And last night it was claimed his family, including his widow, backed his decision “100 per cent”.
|The clinic: Dignitas in Pfaeffikon near Zurich|
The man took with him a report from a psychiatrist stating he was mentally competent to choose to kill himself.
And last night one campaigner told how the pensioner was “so grateful at the end.”
Retired GP Michael Irwin, 81, had arranged for him to see a psychiatrist to produce a report saying he was mentally competent.
He revealed that the man’s wife had made the travel arrangements for the trip to Zurich.
Mr Irwin, who did not travel with the couple, said yesterday: “His family were 100% behind him.
"I have spoken to his widow since and she felt that it was handled in a very dignified and proper manner.”
“She is extremely happy about how everything was arranged.”
He added: “I have been four times with people to Switzerland.
"Two were terminally ill, one was very disabled and one was in her mid 80s so I have seen how it is handled by the Swiss. It is a very dignified procedure.
“You have got to be a very determined person to be able or willing to make that kind of journey.
“He knew of how things would deteriorate and took what I think is a sensible decision… both for himself and his family.”
But news of the assisted suicide will cause outrage among right-to-life and healthcare campaigners.
Critics claim it carries the implication that those with dementia should consider killing themselves.
Experts point out that sufferers can live for years with the condition.
It is also likely to widen the debate over the circumstances in which assisted suicide should be permitted.
The vast majority people who have chosen to die at Dignitas are those with terminal illnesses such as cancer or severe physical disabilities.
Campaign group Care Not Killing described the development as “alarming”.
Mr Irwin – nicknamed Dr Death - claims to have helped at least 25 people to die at the clinic. In the past he has been interviewed by police, but never arrested.
Although legal in Switzerland, assisted suicide is a criminal offence in the UK and carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
More than 800,000 people in Britan suffer from dementia – around one in ten of all those between 80 and 84.
Mr Irwin defended the pensioner’s right to take his life before his condition deteriorated.
He said: “It takes three or four months on average from the day you make an application until the actual day you die in Zurich.
"So when people have a chronic problem or a slow-developing condition such as motor neurone disease, dementia or are severely disabled you have a crucial time factor.
“It’s important to stress that with early dementia, you are still then mentally competent for quite some time to make a decision about going to Dignitas.
"It’s important that diagnosis is made at an early time to give an individual that choice.”
Lord Falconer, a former Lord Chancellor, launched a private member’s bill in the Lords earlier this month to make assisted dying legal for the terminally ill.
Novelist Sir Terry Pratchett, 65, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2008, is also a supporter and has become a flagbearer in the campaign to change the law.
Mr Irwin, co-ordinator of the Society for Old Age Rational Suicide, says the legal right should be extended to elderly people suffering from medical conditions and those who are severely disabled or enduring unbearable suffering.
He added: “This topic of old-age rational suicide should now be openly discussed. Lord Falconer’s bill will be focusing only on the terminally ill.
"The other two categories, the severely disabled and the elderly with medical problems, should be equally well discussed nowadays, especially with an ageing population.”
The number of dementia victims in the UK is set to rise to more than a million by 2021 – and 1.7 million by 2050.
Mr Irwin argues that elderly sufferers may prefer thousands of pounds that would be spent on their care to go to their grandchildren.
He said: “The desire to ‘stop being a burden’ on one’s family, and to avoid squandering financial resources perhaps better spent on grandchildren’s further education, could become the final altruistic gesture, especially when combined with a wish to stop prolonging a life that is both futile and very unpleasant.”
He claimed: “Part of what makes a patient’s suffering intolerable could be the realisation that it is ruining other people’s lives.
"Then, a doctor assisted suicide could be a rational moral act.”
But critics fear that if euthanasia was legalised there would be pressure to widen the category of people to be included.
A spokesman for Care Not Killing said: “It’s hugely alarming and shows the real agenda of those seeking a change in the law.
"What they are looking for is assisted suicide or euthanasia almost on demand.
“We’ve been warning about an incremental approach, as once you change the law you get more and more cases like this, which is why we are so worried.
“We know that people who are vulnerable, disabled and terminally ill will be most under pressure.”
Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg has previously said he plans to kill himself if he begins to suffer from dementia.
The arts presenter, 73, whose mother had Alzheimer’s disease until her death last year aged 95, said: “Legal or illegal, I will do it.”
He added: “We can’t keep sending people to Switzerland. We should say, given certain conditions, it’s fine.”