18 January 2016
by Julia Medew
Thousands of older people exploring 'rational suicide': Nitschke
Pat and Peter Shaw took their own lives together in their home when they were both aged 87.
Thousands of older people are investigating peaceful methods to end their own lives because they want to control the nature and timing of their death, says controversial euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke.
The former doctor said there was a developing trend of baby boomers and people over 70 wanting to avoid "end of life medical nightmares" in which they are seriously ill and or feel trapped in a hospital or nursing home where it can be difficult to take your own life.
Head of Exit International Philip Nitschke.
The head of Exit International said these people were "used to getting their own way and less likely to accept the 'doctor knows best' approach to issues as fundamental as one's death", and were sourcing a reliable lethal drug to stash in case they wanted to use it in the future.
Most of these people were putting themselves at legal risk to import and possess that drug, Mr Nitschke said, and some were getting caught up in blackmail scams where supposed suppliers threaten to report people to the police if they do not pay large sums of money online.
While customs are frequently intercepting the drug, Mr Nitschke said he knew of only three people in 10 years to be charged with importing it after customs tracked the order to them. All three received fines and were not convicted of a criminal offence.
Last week, Fairfax Media told the story of Peter and Pat Shaw – Exit members who took their own lives together in their home when they were both aged 87. Before their deaths, they told their family they were rational, had lived full lives, and did not want to run the risk of further ill health and institutionalisation.
In response to their story, Mr Nitschke called for the decriminalisation of people aged over 70 who import or possess the drug he promotes for a peaceful death. He said while many doctors "peddle" a line that you cannot be rational and take your own life, he believed otherwise and that the Shaws were a good example.
Professor Ian Hickie, a psychiatrist and mental health campaigner, said he thought it was tragic that people wanted to "check out" of life because of myths and negative stereotypes about ageing, pain relief, hospitals and how the health system treats elderly people.
He said while some people may not have a mental illness when they end their own life, Exit International's approach to teaching people about suicide was reaching vulnerable people who could, with further assistance, live a longer, enjoyable life.
Professor Hickie, of the Brain and Mind Centre, said Australian authorities needed to work on policies and resources to promote healthy ageing with a focus on getting the right care and support to people so they do not feel like a burden and live as well as they can in their later years.
He said people considering suicide or families discussing the issue should examine what is underpinning people's motivation. Is it fear of being a burden? Is it fear of a lack of care?
"It's a dialogue we need to have … There shouldn't be a need to check out at any age."