Healthy Retired Nurse Ends Her Life Because Old Age Is Awful


By Laura Donelly

A leading palliative care nurse with no serious health problems has ended her life at a Swiss suicide clinic because she did not want to end up as a “hobbling old lady”.

Gill Pharaoh, 75, who wrote two books giving advice on how to care for the elderly, was not suffering from a terminal disease.

She said she had seen enough of old age to know that she was “going over the hill” and wanted to take action to end her life while she was able to do so.

Speaking before her death in Basel, the mother of two said her experience as a nurse, including working in nursing homes, had shown her that the reality of old age was “awful”.

She told The Sunday Times: “I have looked after people who are old, on and off, all my life. I have always said, ‘I am not getting old. I do not think old age is fun.’ I know that I have gone just over the hill now. It is not going to start getting better. I do not want people to remember me as a sort of old lady hobbling up the road with a trolley.

“I have got so many friends with partners who, plainly, are a liability. I know you shouldn’t say that but I have this mental picture in my head of all you need to do, at my age, is break a hip and you are likely to go very much downhill from that.”

She said her partner and children had supported her wishes, though it would not have been their choice.

In the interview before her death on July 21, she said her daughter, Caron, a nurse, had struggled particularly with the decision.

The pensioner is one of a growing number of Britons who are choosing an assisted death in Switzerland.

Last year a study found that one in five of the 611 people who travelled to Switzerland to end their lives between 2008 and 2012 were from the UK.

A spokesman for Care Not Killing, which campaigns against assisted dying, said: “This is another deeply troubling case and sends out a chilling message about how society values and looks after elderly people in the UK.”

In May a father with cancer ended his life at the Swiss clinic Dignitas against the wishes of his family, despite admitting “I know I am going too early.”

Jeffrey Spector, who had a tumour on his spine but was not terminally ill, died at the Zurich hospital because he feared he would become paralysed.

In a final interview given hours before he died Mr Spector, 54, admitted: “I am jumping the gun. Do not judge me."

However, Dr Michael Irwin, the co-ordinator of the Society for Old Age Rational Suicide (Soars), who helped the retired nurse with her plans to go to Switzerland, said: “Some will say that Gill was wrong to avoid the expected decrepitude of ‘old age’ but, having seen much suffering as a palliative care nurse, she took the rational decision that . . . she preferred to have a pre-emptive, doctor-assisted suicide.”

The former nurse had no major health problems, and was on no medication. She said she suffered from intermittent back pain following a bout of shingles, and had tinnitus.

But she said she felt she was going downhill “in an almost imperceptible way” as she grew older.

“I would rather go out when I am not quite at a peak. I have dropped off a bit but I want to be still me, recognisably me and not have people look and think, ‘Oh, are you Gill, were you Gill?” she said. “A lot of people are very good until they are 70 and then they start sloping off a bit.”

She was accompanied to Lifecircle, the assisted-dying clinic in Basel, by John.

On the eve of her death, the couple wandered through the city before enjoying a meal on the banks of the Rhine.

“The whole evening was very tranquil and enjoyable,” said John. “I think it is what we both wanted. Gill had been thinking about it for years and I had no intention of spoiling it by getting emotional and heavy.”

The former nurse said her children and partner had struggled with her decision.

“It is not his [John’s] choice at all and my kids are backing me, although it is not their choice,” she said before the journey to Switzerland. “My daughter is a nurse and she said, ‘Intellectually, I know where you are coming from but emotionally I am finding it really hard,’ and I know she is.”

Her partner called her children after the death. A humanist memorial service, arranged by Ms Pharoah, will take place later this month.

Two months before her death, Gill wrote an article, entitled My Last Word, in which she set out her decision to end her life.

“Day by day, I am enjoying my life. I simply do not want to follow this natural deterioration through to the last stage when I may be requiring a lot of help,” she wrote.

“I have to take action early on because no one will be able to take action for me. The thought that I may need help from my children appals me. I know many old people expect, and even demand, help from their children but I think this is a most selfish and unreasonable view.”

She said her experience as a nurse had shown her the reality of elderly life.

“If you work in a nursing home and you have people who are incontinent, who use bad language, who walk around the rooms and just take things, it is very difficult. It is not a job you enjoy,” she said.

“I just felt it was so bleak and so sad. We all did what we could but, for many of those old people, there wasn’t a lot you could do. We do not look at the reality. Generally, it is awful.”


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