I have no idea what went on in Charles Snelling’s head last week when he took his wife Adrienne’s life before ending his own.
No outsider really knows what goes on in another person’s marriage. Marriages are way too complicated to be reduced to some daytime drama of villains and victims. And I’m betting that most of the people who are willing to pass judgment on Snelling have never been a full-time caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s for six years.
Last October, when New York Times columnist David Brooks put out a call for the life stories of people over 70, Charles Snelling, an entrepreneur and longtime Republican Party activist from Upper Macungie, responded with a lengthy account. The story struck some people as self-congratulatory but the love he professed for his wife of 61 years, who was then in the throes of dementia, seemed completely authentic.
Their deaths have prompted a lot of discussion about people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. If I’m ever diagnosed with the disease, I’m hoping to have time to collect a stash of sleeping pills or some other drug and then know enough to take them before I turn into a shell of myself.
That’s not to say anyone else has to follow that route. Some people are morally opposed and not everybody is comfortable taking those matters into their own hands.
Going gently into that good night definitely has its drawbacks.
It would be hard to voluntarily let go of a life you have loved for so long. I can see my addled future self saying each morning, “I’ll take the pills tomorrow. Today I’m going to sit in the sunshine” -- until it’s too late for me to do it myself.
My only brush with end-of-life dilemmas was when my father was dying of cancer in 2006. My brother, mother and I agreed that when it came to whether to remove life support, my father would make the decision as long as he was able.
When he no longer could, it would depend on whether he was in any pain and whether there was any hope of him rallying. He died quietly a couple days later.
He had a living will and made it very clear that he never wanted to continue in such a reduced state. My father believed in being useful – he was still working up to a month before his death. He was a dignified, self-sufficient man and he felt it would be a direct contradiction to the life he had led to have others spend years administering to him in an infantile state.
For many Alzheimer’s patients, it’s too late to ask if they would prefer to live in their current state of oblivion or die peacefully. The Morning Call reported that friends said Charles Snelling had a pact with Adrienne that he would never put her in a nursing home. Perhaps their deaths last week were part of that.
The government can’t sanction what Charles Snelling did, of course. Any law – like Oregon’s or Washington state’s – that allows terminally ill patients to take their own lives needs to have plenty of safeguards so “right to die” doesn’t become “forced to die.”
The real question on end-of-life issues should be: Who decides? And if you aren’t able to decide for yourself, whom do you trust to decide for you?
Charles Snelling, who was known in the Lehigh Valley for his opinion pieces in The Morning Call, never shrank from a debate. It seems fitting that in death, he started one.