Massachusetts Suicide Referendum Divides Elderly

By Daniel G. Petersen
Boston University News Service

CHARLESTOWN – Polly Ketro, an 83-year-old woman from Vermont living in Boston, voted in Massachusetts for the first time this Tuesday, not only choosing between candidates, but also expressing her perspective on two ballot questions related to physician assisted suicide and medical marijuana.

She is one of the few thousand elders in the Charlestown neighborhood who were faced with these two highly divisive issues, both of them very significant for each of them personally. Ketro voted at the Zelma Lacey House, an assisted living residence which she also calls home.

The residence has hosted voters every November since its opening eight years ago, and the turnout by her neighbors at the facility has always been high, she recalls.

“We’re a bunch of voters,” Ketro said.  “Anytime you get a bunch of seniors, they vote.”

According to the 2010 Census, 27 percent of the population is more than 55 years old.  However, when elections take place, many of them are not able to vote, particularly when temperatures hovered near freezing, as they did on Tuesday.

“It’s great [that voting is in the building],” Ketro said.  “A lot of us don’t want to go outside.”

When at the polls, voters were faced with a decision on referendum two, which concerns the legality of drugs meant to end their lives.

Resident Care Director of the Zelma Lacey House and registered nurse, Laurie Turner, said that some nursessupport the measure.

“It has a place in our society,” Turner said.  “People have a right to [die] when they’re that debilitated.”

Despite the opportunity, elders like 85-year-old Eddie Cotter reject the idea of assisted suicide based largely on adherence totraditional values concerning end-of-life decisions.

“You wouldn’t go to Heaven,” Cotter said.  He callshimself not a good Catholic, but a Catholic nonetheless.  “I don’t want to see anything with suicide on the ballot. No, no, no, no way.”

Advertisements posted on YouTube have claimed that, if passed, question two would not facilitate dying with dignity, as proponents of the measure have suggested.  Jim Ahern, a 73-year-old Charlestown voter, believes the availability of a “pill” for ending life means many elders would die earlier than they would have otherwise.  But, he says he could never use the medication himself.

“I just got diagnosed with cancer, but I couldn’t do it,” Ahern said.  “Suicide is a sin.”

Other voters, like Ketro at the Zelma Lacey House, say that there is little reason to prevent the use of such medication by the terminally ill.

“I don’t want a botched-up suicide when people do it themselves,” Ketro said.  “Why should people in a lot of pain not be able to relieve the pain for Heaven’s sake?”

Ketro holds similar views when it comes to access to medical marijuana, which is the subject of question three on the Massachusetts ballot.But, says Cotter, he is, “hokey enough without all that.”

Past users, like Ahern sympathize with the drive to legalize medical marijuana.“I don’t think it really harms you [if used] every once in a while,” Ahern said.

Medical marijuana has been used since the 1980s, according to Turner.  In her previous work with patients, pills containing marijuana were found to stimulate the appetite of cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, and she emphasizes the positive medical consequences if the question passes.

“I’m not worried about teenagers getting [medical marijuana] in the city, and cops will have to monitor it,” Turner said.  “But otherwise elders would not know where to go for it.”

Neither question two nor three was important to her before they were on the ballot, but Turner says that she would see the referenda as a step forward in the struggle of society with attitudes toward death, particularly as the American public ages.

As for her own experiences as a nurse, “I know it sounds crazy,” Turner said,“but it’s an experience –being involved in death.”

“I’ve always felt like it’s a privilege being a part of the dying process.”

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