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Retired nurse commits suicide to avoid growing old

Gill Pharaoh, in a photo posted on her blog.

Gill Pharaoh/yesiambovvered.com

Gill Pharaoh, a 75-year-old woman from Britain with no serious health issues, decided to end her life at a Swiss euthanasia clinic on July 21 with her partner of 25 years by her side, sparking renewed debate over the right to die.

According to the Daily Mail, her partner John Southall said Pharaoh had been talking with family and friends about someday ending her life for more than 20 years. Her decision to die was based on a desire not to grow old and become a burden to her family.

Pharaoh, who worked as a nurse and had written two books on caring for elderly patients, wrote about her decision in a blog post entitled "My Last Word" on her website:

During my working life, first as a general nurse and then working in palliative care, I often met people who felt that their life was complete and that they were no longer prepared to fight to stay alive. I also found that people did not tell their family this, in case they were thought to have "given up".
These were people who had a serious and life threatening disease. I often felt that they were being urged to "keep fighting" when in fact they were quite ready to give up. And when, later, families said what a good fight they put up, my instinct was that the patient was fighting to be allowed to let go peacefully.

Pharaoh said that she remained fit and active until she was 70, but a severe case of shingles changed that. She said she could no longer do the things she used to love such as gardening and cooking, and that her tinnitus was a "big distraction." She admitted that her irritations were "comparatively trivial" and insisted that she was not depressed. She wrote on her blog:

I feel my life is complete and I am ready to die. My family are well and happy - their lives are full and busy. I can no longer walk the distances I used to enjoy so the happy hours spent exploring the streets of London are just a memory now.
I simply do not want to follow this natural deterioration through to the last stage when I may be requiring a lot of help. I have to take action early on because no one else will be able to take action for me. The thought that I may need help from my children totally appals me. ...

I want people to remember me as I am now -a bit worn around the edges and not quite at my peak, but still recognizably me!

I hope that people will support, without judgment, my family and my friends, not all of whom know my plans. I know people will have different reactions to my choice, but I would like to think that anyone who has ever cared for me will be happy for me, that I have avoided the kind of old age I have always dreaded and feared.

She also urged the government to make assisted suicide legal for those who choose it. "I do not promote this action for anyone who does not want it," she wrote. "I do not want the right to euthanize the mentally ill or physically handicapped."

The public response to Pharaoh's decision to end her life has been emotional and decidedly mixed. Supporters say that the ability to decide when you want to die is the ultimate freedom, while critics worry that people might make such a decision for the wrong reasons and want there to be more safeguards.

A spokesman for Care Not Killing, which opposes euthanasia and assisted suicide, told the Sunday Times, "This is another deeply troubling case and sends out a chilling message about how society values and looks after elderly people in the UK."

Dr. Michael Irwin from the Society for Old Age Rational Suicide (Soars) helped Pharaoh with her plans. He told the Sunday Times: "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."

Pharaoh leaves behind her partner John Southall and her two children, Caron and Mark.

Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, although the Swiss government has sought to cut down on "suicide tourism," which draws hundreds of foreigners to Switzerland each year to end their lives.