On September 20th it was reported in the newspaper that a 50 year old son was being jailed for smothering his mother. Some of the most beautiful exhortations in the Bible and the Qur’an describe the honour in which we should hold our parents who have led us on the path to Paradise. Even if we have no religion, we are mostly at least a little bit sentimental about our mothers, in all cultures and grateful for their nurture of us. They allowed our very existence. Killing your own mother is an extreme reversal of the deeply ingrained inclination to revere and adore our mothers.
It is not my intention to re-examine the mental state of the poor man who did this. All criminals are also victims of crime. Nor do I wish to raise any questions about the judge’s decision to impose a 40 month sentence followed by a period of supervision. That’s their job to decide. His lawyer in court would have made the best story he could out of the situation the murderer was in. He is hired for that.
But we all need to be concerned about the defence lawyer’s reported statement that the murderer was “a loving son who lost his mother some years ago and was left to tend and care for someone he hardly knew.”
If we start to regard the person with dementia as having “gone” somewhere and left behind a stranger who cannot command the respect and duty that their predecessor was allowed, we are morally dead ourselves. We need to deal with this seriously. Who knows what he was thinking when he set her body on fire?
We are shaped by the media in how we think of people with dementia. The victim of this murder was described as an “onerous burden”. It was said that the man “was left to do that which no son should have to do....” I assumed this means intimate care because I know a lot of men don’t like doing that for anyone – but it is clever way of putting it...leaving to our imaginations the worst things we each can think of.
I wonder what the worst thing is that a lawyer thinks he might ever have to do for his mother. Am I alone in thinking that the lawyer is asking us to weigh up in our minds “Take mum to the toilet and wipe her, or kill her..which could I more easily do?” There is a danger that we will start to think of those who care for people with dementia as facing an intolerable burden and unbearable dilemmas because dementia is represented to us as something that no normal person can cope with. That framing of a common and increasingly frequent health condition is something that needs to be stamped out before some inspired person or organisation slides in behind us to advocate assisted suicide and euthanasia rather than working together to create some basic carer support and dementia friendly communities. Ellen Ash, a widow, died in her own home at the hands of her son, and her body was set alight.
The horror of this cannot be wound back. Her son is paying a price, who knows how great, for his action. But who will pay for the damage that is done to people with dementia when lawyers and journalists allow the use of language and reporting that will set back the hard won notion that even when I have dementia I have the same rights and I am still the same human being I have always been. You guys need to get over it.