I can honestly say that I have been extremely affected by this course in terms of general knowledge related to the death, dying and grieving process. Prior to taking this class, I was largely ignorant of the various processes that all people (who live long enough) go through relating to their interminable procession towards the grave. One of the most salient aspects about this particular course was the ramifications of improvements in science, technology, and medical care that has allowed for an increasingly aging population. With many baby boomers now headed towards their latter stages of life, the relevance of this class, its textbook, and additional course materials has never been greater. In certain ways, I feel as though I am much more cognitively prepared for what is to come in the future. Yet one of the benefits of this class is that it has also prepared me emotionally for what is coming as well.
A good deal of the emotional preparation that I learned relating to the process of dying is the conventional five stages of grieving, as outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. What was probably most important about these individual stages -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (Ferrini and Ferrini, 2008, p. 530) -- is the relationship they have with one another. They do not necessarily occur in a sequential order, and the amount of time individuals spend during each is extremely flexible. Yet their application to varying aspects of gerontology is truly revealing. In some ways, their experience is milder when people consider the full life the elderly have lived. Yet these same stages may become intensified due to potentially lengthy processes of dying that accompany the deaths of elderly people. Regardless of the intensity of these stages, it was highly useful to learn them in order to contextualize the behavior of those affected by the dying process, and to be able to make some sense of normalcy of what is not a normal situation (losing a loved one).
Another aspect of this course that I found particularly enlightening was the information presented regarding preventative care. Prior to taking this class, I thought that preventative care merely meant keeping up with doctor visits and taking any medicine that was prescribed. As such, I was fairly delighted to find that the most fundamental (and in some ways important) preventive care is actually based on foods consumed. I had no idea that eating nutritional food made a lasting difference on both mental and physical health for people, and that the eating of certain foods could actually prevent the rate of incidence of maladies. This aspect of this course has made me significantly more conscious of what I eat and how, and is something that I readily share with others.
I was also largely ignorant of the role that ethnicity has historically played in the health and wellness of people. These factors are oftentimes linked to socio-economic conditions (particularly in the United States), which attests to the importance of these factors in relation to access to health care, good jobs, affordable housing, and things that everyone should have equal access to. Unfortunately, statistical data frequently demonstrates that this is not true. Some of the proclivities discussed for certain medical conditions are hereditary, of course, but it seems as though many such conditions are preventable if there were truly equal access to resources.
Overall, however, this course has made me reconsider notions of youth. I have often heard the aphorism that youth is wasted on the young, but the significance of this statement never really resonated within me until I took this class. There really is a delicacy associated with life and its process, which begins in youth, more or less climaxes somewhere throughout middle age, and decrescendos through old age. A good deal of this course focused on issues related to health -- particular diseases, preventive measures, conditions, and an inexorable declining of the physical -- that simply is unaccounted for during youth.
But what this course actually helped me realize is that aging actually does occur throughout the earlier stages of one's life -- people simply do not notice it as much. There is a fine line between eagerly anticipating a birthday, the presents, the heralding of a new age and status in life, and clinging to the last one simply because of what lies ahead. This class has made me greatly appreciate this balance, and given me a greater resolve to live in the moment, plan for the future, and to not worry about the past.
What is a little frightening to me is a fairly subtle sentiment that arose within me while internalizing the vast majority of information related to age and dying. At some point it seemed a little overwhelming, especially when one considers all of the physical changes associated with age, as well as cognitive ones, different concerns for money and friends, and the increasing need for healthcare. Everyone has people who are close to them who they want to see live and enjoy their lives for as long as possible. But somewhere in the midst of this course I began to feel like all of those increasing needs and help that are necessary to survive as an elderly person simply postpone the inevitable. Part of me really questions the worth of spending substantial amounts of money on gerontology and health care for the elderly and making elaborate preparations to keep them around when doing so simply prolongs the dying experience. Part of me views these preparations as prolonging the life of an individual, but I just truly have to question what sort of life it actually is?
The perspective advocated by the vast majority of the materials reviewed within this course seems to project the prolonging of life in a generally positive manner. I, however, question whether or not this is true. Is life truly worth living if one cannot engage in all of the activities that make life enjoyable? Are you really alive if you cannot do all the things that have helped to define your existence, and which grant your life some semblance of meaning? Although there is a definite sentimental aspect in allowing for people to age and grow in the latter stages of their life, it seems that there are a number of people who have issued negative responses to the aforementioned rhetorical questions, and who believe that life is worth ending if it not the life they envisioned for themselves or embraced.
Before I took this course, I actually was fairly ignorant of the difference between euthanasia and assisted suicide. Furthermore, I was a definite advocate of life in all of its myriad manifestations. I tended to believe that the gift of life is a precious one (and I still do), and that such a gift alone makes attempting to preserve and prolong any sort of life, so long as there is a chance for such a life to thrive and grow, as admirable and even dutiful. However, there were a number of materials that I encountered in this course that make me now believe my previous beliefs on the subject of assisted suicide and euthanasia were dangerously naive. I am now aware of the fact that there are situations in which death is viewed advantageously, either for the person going to die or for those who inevitably would be affected by such a loss of life. Both of these measures allows for a degree of closure to situations which may have no pleasant ending available -- other than a quick, painless death and the release it allows all parties involved including the patient suffering as well as friends and family members who are suffering at seeing the patient suffer. I now realize that there are a number of situations in which the prolongation of life is not the prolongation of an ideal life or even a life that a person would want, in which case ending such a life is merciful.
As similar as euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are in concept, there is a definite distinction between the two that is worth denoting. The principle difference between the two lies in the responsibility for the act of killing. In physician-assisted suicide, a person ends his or her own life by some means that is offered them, usually by a physician. The responsibility for this action, therefore, resides with the patient, who completes the deed voluntarily and in a highly active sense. The responsibility for euthanasia, however, contains significantly greater room for ambiguity. There are instances of both passive and active euthanasia; the former involves omitting an action that will eventually result in death while the latter involves committing an action that will end in death (No author, 2001). Euthanasia can also be voluntary or involuntary, meaning that the patient can either request it or others can decided that euthanasia is the best solution for another.