Is a Life Without Memory Worth Living?

Marc Zimmerman

March 20, 2014

Many years ago, my grandfather went to a nursing home to visit a fellow World War II veteran with whom he served. When my grandfather got to the nursing home, he was shocked to find that his old comrade was almost unrecognizable. His body was frail and his mind was weak. Alzheimer’s was slowly but surely destroying his friend’s mind and body. My grandfather was mortified at the prospect of ever living in the same condition. Later that day, my grandfather told his son, “Please, don’t let me live like that.” That was my grandfather’s wish many years ago.

Flash-forward 20 years. My grandfather had now become the victim of Alzheimer’s terrible effects. After experiencing a decade of slow decline, my grandfather’s condition deteriorated quite rapidly, and my grandmother finally reached the point where she could no longer care for him at home. They put him into a nursing home, the one place where my grandfather swore he never wanted to be. What is worse is that he did not even realize he had been put into a nursing home. He woke up every single day not knowing who he was, where he was, and who was sitting out in the hallway watching over him.

Only a couple days after being placed in the nursing home, his condition declined so rapidly that even they could not care for him. He stopped eating. He stopped sleeping at night. He constantly wandered the halls trying to “go home.” Even the nursing home lacked the capacity to take care of my grandfather, so he was sent to a psychiatric hospital where he could be medicated and watched 24 hours a day. If my grandfather would have been mortified seeing himself in that nursing home, how would he have felt about spending his final days in a mostly sedated state in a psychiatric hospital? All of this because Alzheimer’s had robbed him of his life, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

Throughout the years, I had watched my grandfather’s mind slowly deteriorate. First he started to forget longtime family friends. Next he started to forget neighbors and fellow war veterans. Finally, he started to forget his own children and grandchildren. The last person to fade away was his own wife, to whom he had been married for over 61 years. She, too, was eventually forgotten.

Although it is difficult to find positive things to say when reflecting on my grandfather’s condition, it has given me a unique perspective on life that I would not otherwise have. When I think about my grandfather, I find myself asking what the purpose of life truly is and whether or not someone in his mental and physical condition is truly alive. According to the scientific definition of life, a beating heart and functioning organs are all that is necessary to constitute life. I find, however, that the scientific definition of life is unsatisfactory. It encompasses nothing more than biological functions of the human body. I refuse to believe that life is nothing more than biological functions. There must be a greater purpose in life.

What is this greater purpose? Some people might say it is a life devoted to their religion. Some people might say it is a life devoted to helping the less fortunate. Some people might say it is a life devoted to learning and contemplation. All of these greater purposes, however, were unattainable for my grandfather in his final years. He could no longer devote himself to religion; for his mind was incapable of retaining any religious teachings. He could no longer devote himself to helping the less fortunate; for his mind prevented him from speaking or acting coherently. Finally, he could no longer devote himself to learning and contemplation; for his memory prevented him from learning or remembering anything new.

What if there is no greater purpose to life? What if the sole purpose of life is simply to enjoy yourself and have fun? Well, my grandfather could not do that either. He did not know his family, he could not communicate with others, he woke up every day not knowing where he was, his poor eyesight made reading impossible, and the deterioration of his memory prohibited him from retaining any fleeting moments of joy. I do not believe anyone can honestly say that anything about the last few years of his life was fun or enjoyable.

In his deteriorated state, I would argue that my grandfather was not truly alive. Despite the fact that his heart was still beating, his soul had been dead for a long time. What, then, was the point of keeping my grandfather “alive” in this state when it was against his wishes? Why could his wishes not have been carried out similarly to those in someone’s will? Why could his wishes not have been carried out in a similar way to someone signing a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate Order)? The two situations are fundamentally the same insomuch as they allow the person himself to specify their end-of-life treatment. So why is it that a person suffering from a physical death has the option to specify their treatment through a DNR but someone suffering a death of their mental state, which is equally as fundamental to life, is unable to specify their wishes for end-oflife care?

Thankfully, my family was not faced with the heart-wrenching decision of whether or not to end my grandfather’s life. He passed away of natural causes after spending the last six months of his life confined to a torturous existence. As an only child, however, I know that I may someday be faced with a similar situation when my parents grow old. After seeing how horrifying the end of my grandfather’s life was, both of my parents have eerily similar sentiments to those echoed by my grandfather so many years ago – they too, do not wish to live in that state. Even though it would be unimaginably hard to make the decision that would end the life of one of my parents, I know that is the decision my parents would want me to make.

In short, the situation with my grandfather has made me reevaluate the merits of voluntary euthanasia. Many people cannot imagine having to make the decision to end the life of a loved one and, thus, immediately dismiss the idea. What if the decision were not left up to the family? What if it were made by the person himself while they were still of sound mind and body? Similar to a living will or the power of attorney, there would be no arguing the person’s wishes if they were clearly defined on paper. This would lift the burden of decision off the family and remove all doubt about what the patient wanted. Even though there would need to be a way of determining exactly when someone in my grandfather’s position would be euthanized, small technicalities like this should not keep public discussion from starting. I must admit that if I had not experienced the decline of my grandfather’s health firsthand, I, too, would have dismissed the idea. Given the opportunity, however, I believe my grandfather would have been willing to put his wishes on paper if it meant avoiding the horrors of his last couple years.

My grandfather lived a peaceful, hardworking life. He served his country valiantly in the Second World War. He spent his life loving his family and teaching children music. After such an honorable life, it seems cruel to deny his final wish and subject him and his family to the horrible punishment of such a perverse and extended descent to his inevitable end.