By Yasmin Noone
Whether you are for or against it, the debate about legalising euthanasia is very much alive.
Recent survey results from the Pfizer Health Report, developed by Alzheimer’s Australia, have shown that 42 per cent of Australians would be euthanized if they were terminally ill, should the option be available.
CEO of Alzheimer’s Australia, Glenn Rees, said that although the statistic in favour of euthanasia was quite high, he expects that a greater number of people in the community would actually favour having the option to choose.
“The surprise perhaps is that the figure is 42 per cent of Australians…and it is not higher,” Mr Rees said.
“I think this research shows that people want to make choices at the end of life, whether that choice is within the current law or it is the option of euthanasia if it became legal. Whether or not they exercise their legal rights is another issue.”
The euthanasia question is a first for Alzheimer’s Australia, marking the only time the organisation has ever asked the public its opinion about the topic.
“Some people would say, ‘Why are you doing this now?’ The answer is that the debate is happening. Unless we are part of it, we will not able to inform it from the perspective of people with dementia.
“Our organisation does not have a position for or against euthanasia in the debate. We take part so that people living with dementia can decide for themselves what choices they would like to make.
“These issues are deeply personal and the threshold issue is about whether people should have a choice beyond the current legal options that include refusing treatment.”
The euthanasia option was part of a broader question about end of life decisions, within a 26-question dementia-related survey of 2,500 Australian adults.
It questioned a person’s care options, should they become terminally ill with only a few weeks to live.
Almost 55 per cent said that they would be in favour of determining the care options that were best suited to them through advance care directives; 53 per cent would prefer to be given the option to refuse all treatment even if this meant that they would die sooner; and nine per cent said that they wanted to be kept alive for as long as possible through medical intervention, such as artificial feeding or hydration.
The survey also addressed other future planning options, such as wills and advance care directives.
It revealed that 49 per cent of Australians have not taken any action, in the case that they lose the ability to make decisions some point in the future. Of those who had taken action, 42 per cent had drawn up a will.
“The key findings are not easy to reconcile. People say they want choice but the majority do not take any action to prepare for an event where they may lose the ability to take decisions.
“With dementia you can’t afford to make a decision too late as in making an advance directive, you must be deemed able to sign the document.
“There should be a properly informed debate and if we can help, then that’s what we should do as an advocacy organisation.”
Alzheimer’s Australia aims to further explore the issue with the releases a dementia discussion paper in May. The topic will also be workshopped at the Alzheimer’s Australia Conference, 17-20 May.
“Arguably, the issues in relation to euthanasia are even more complex for people with dementia than the general population.
“For example, if a person with dementia has made an advance directive but is no longer competent, legally appointed people may be reluctant to take decisions unless the person’s wishes are very clear.
“If the person has made no advance directive then there may be no way of knowing what the person’s wishes are. Put differently, some may feel we know too little about what a person with dementia may feel to make decisions on their behalf.
“These are some of the issues the discussion paper will consider.”