friends are dead and I have cancer which makes me increasingly
dependent. I don't want to be a burden to my children. Doctor,
please assist me in euthanasia."
Her daughter is fighting her tears, trying to come to terms with
her mother's decision.
Later, the doctor reflects on the lady's request.
How come we're suddenly so afraid to be a burden to people when
we grow old?
Aren't we a "burden" to people all our lives to some extent?
Babies are cute but they need to be taken care of and put
limitations on their parents' activities. We think that's only
natural and actually enjoy it for the most part.
But apparently we've decided that when the one who needs help is
an elderly person they're a burden all of a sudden.
A friend and I discussed this topic earlier and more generally.
The doctor is right, we need people throughout our lives.
That's what it means to be a social being.
Very often the lives of parents revolve around their baby.
As children we require time, attention and money and our parents
will drive us to dancing classes, sports clubs, music lessons
As teenagers we often cause our parents to worry quite a bit.
As partners, parents, employers, colleagues, neighbours we expect
people to behave a certain way, give us their time and attention,
be there for us, take our wishes and needs into account. Our
plans may differ from the other person's plans so we are a
"burden" even if it's a small one.
Yet we do not recognise our being dependent or a burden. We don't
call it that.
We define what "give" and "take" means from an "us and them"
That's safe, usually.
Some "give and takes" are considered a normal part of life;
society couldn't function without them.
Of course we take care of babies, children and teenagers!
Besides, they'll be productive in the future.
In other cases there is a mutual "give and take": you work for
me, I pay you.
If it's an occasional, one-time event, giving without getting
something back is acceptable too - it may actually make us feel
But if one is old, chronically ill or disabled it's apparently
considered a long-term commitment that doesn't naturally follow
from being a society and doesn't constitute a direct mutual "give
and take" situation.
But what's the difference? How do we define the reward or what is
normal in society?
The simplest answer would be: money.
Those who are economically productive or are expected to be so in
the future count and are deserving of our efforts; it's an
Otherwise you're a charity, nice for the feel good factor but as
soon as our need to feel good is satisfied you're useless.
In my opinion it's too easy to blame it all on money.
Money means "the rich and powerful", the big companies and
There's the "us and them" perspective again!
It's not our fault that people are excluded.
Aren't industrial tycoons and politicians people just like
everyone else? They were our neighbours, our friends, our
relatives, our colleagues long before they rose to fame, power
Besides, it seems to me that it's not so much being a burden on
the state (being dependent on money or health care from the
state) that bothers people the most; it's the feeling of being a
burden on a partner, children, neighbours, the feeling of being a
charity - and we all know what that means: "I'm the great
benefactor, you are the grateful recipient of my benevolent
gift". Great to be on the "I" side, much less great to be on the
Charity is not solely the domain of tycoons and politicians, it's
where we all participate, that's how we know the rules so well.
However good our intentions may be, however loving and
compassionate we may undertake our task of caring for someone, we
often (unconsciously and unintentionally) send the message: "you
are dependent, the weaker one who needs to be taken care of." We
may say it's understandable, not a problem, but it's still a
top-down approach a lot of the time where we, high above, reach
down to help the other person up.
As humans we want to be respected and appreciated, valued for who
we are and what we have to offer. We want to be seen as
essentially equal to others.
Charity robs us of all those things. Charities no longer belong
to "us" but are "demoted" to "them".
One would think that we (="us"), non-employers, non-politicians,
unflawed by money and power, should recognise the value of ALL a
person has to offer: love, creativity, insight, understanding,
patient listening, acceptance... and that shouldn't change when a
person grows old or becomes disabled. We're basically still the
same person with the same personal human gifts to share with the
world, the same soul, the same mind.
Whether one belongs to "us" or "them" they have their strengths
and weaknesses and we all complement each other.
Let's not forget that it's only a very tiny thin line between us
and them. Everyone will be old one day. Anyone could become ill
or disabled, it only takes one fateful moment.
And when we're there, across that supposedly well-guarded line
between us and them, we too still want to be respected, accepted,
So let's stop thinking in terms of us and them. We can do that
without denying differences because basically everybody's
If nothing else, let the (possible or certain) reality of our
future inspire us to stop this "us and them" thinking.
Better yet, let's do it out of respect for humanity.
The bottom line is we all need help in some way every day whoever
If we can see that and no longer impart the message that "we
young / healthy ones are above you crippled / old people" we
might save some lives and improve the quality of many more.
Finally a note to "them": I learnt that some people have a strong
need to feel needed. They are happy if they can help and are
appreciated for it.
They may want the world to know what great deeds they're doing
and how much they sacrifice.
If the world says "wow, that's great, you are so giving!" it will
strengthen their sense of identity.
So don't think it's because you're "weak" or "needy" that they
"have to be there" ("us and them" thinking is such an easy trap to
fall into for anyone!); if you were "young & healthy" and broke
an arm, hurt your ankle or just had the flu you'd be just as
useful to them.
Just let them help you if it makes life easier for you, then give
them a sincere "thank you" and make their day!