This past month, Cardus entered into the discussion about end-of-life care in Canada. One of the striking things in many of the reports is that a lot of Canadians want to be taken care of by their own—that is, taken care of by their spouses, children, family, or friends. But most will die in the unfamiliar setting of a hospital, and many of them will do so alone.
Why? One narrative—the dominant one—is that we don’t get what we want because our universal healthcare system has failed to properly provide for the influx of greying baby-boomers. The system has failed to create new and better programs and to financially prop up natural caregivers with better Compassionate Care benefits—though the recent federal budget’s allowance is a step in the right direction. And there is truth to this narrative: Better end-of-life care will likely mean we need to have more robust institutions and better systemic strategies.
But I wonder if that’s only part of the story. Let’s step back and ask if we’re posing the right question. Because while it’s one (good) thing to want to be taken care of by our “natural” caregivers, it’s quite another (better) thing to do the caring. My hunch—as uncharitable as it might sound—is that a very real reason many Canadians don’t get what they want is because many of us are unwilling to give it.
I say this because the dominant ideology informing our culture forms individuals who are, well, very individualistic. The signs of this are everywhere: Just read some of Putnam’s work to see how our social fabric has frayed in the past decades. And such increasing atomism necessarily undoes social bonds and, more particularly, undermine society’s most fundamental unit: the family. And such trends are real obstacles to the kind of improved end-of-life care most want.
The sexual revolution—the era through which many of the baby-boomers emerged—plays a leading role in the tragic stories of alienation and loneliness many face at the end of their lives. There’s something of a sad irony in the fact that a Draper, Kennedy, or Updike “type” might crave “natural” attachments at the end of their days, when their lives were marked by making “liberated” choices that severed these attachments at any chance they had.
But I do think there’s hope. We can radically improve the state of end-of-life care, but I suggest two things are needed for that to happen. One is—or should be—quite natural. The other is quite unnatural and, without some supernatural assistance, is likely impossible.
First: Take care of your own. You are a child of someone, somewhere. Plan what you need to do to look after that person. It will probably require some sacrifice of time, money, and, yes, sanity. Yet one of the most basic situations we find ourselves thrown into in this world is that we only come to be through this odd arrangement of family. It’s the first way we learn how to properly love. So commit yourself to your parents.
Also, if you are so blessed as to have them, commit to your spouse and to your children for as long as your life lasts, in sickness, health, poverty, and riches. Enter into those relationships with seriousness. It’s the most natural way for us to learn to care for others in the manner in which we hope to be cared for in return.
Second: Break down all the barriers of who your own really are. This second one is particularly for Christians, because I know of no other group that is called out so specifically to do this. We are not to put a gate up around “our own” in some kind of idolatrous sense. Some of us within the church gleam with pride at our nuclear families, but fail to hear the call to love the enemy as a brother, the stranger as a child. Our entire conception of who “our own” really are needs to be radically altered.
The Heidelberg Catechism even goes so far as to open with: “I am not my own.” So on what grounds can we not give the stranger—perhaps one who has severed all his ties to a natural community of family and friends—the same unconditional forgiveness, undiscriminating charity, and self-sacrificing care that we were given freely?
Improving policy around end-of-life care is a necessary part of the picture. But pointing a finger at the system may also be the reflexive gesture we make when we’re unwilling to see that the problem might actually be within us.