Forum to deal with death

CARP-hosted event set for June to address physician-assisted suicide.

CARP’s April Lewis moderates a forum discussing doctor-assisted suicide last year. The advocacy group is hosting another forum on the controversial topic in June.

It’s a topic that is often uncomfortable, sometimes controversial but always inevitable – death.

Despite the unpleasant nature of the subject matter, an advocacy group on the Semiahmoo Peninsula is gathering to address dying – and specifically, doctor-assisted suicide – head on.

The event comes on the heels of the Supreme Court of Canada’s February ruling that the legal ban on physician-assisted dying violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Hosted by the White Rock/Surrey chapter of CARP (formerly Canadian Association of Retired Persons), Dying to Have a Conversation: Let’s Talk About End of Life Issues is set for June 17 at the White Rock Community Centre.

According to April Lewis, CARP’s local communications director, the discussion is both timely and important.

“We’re all going to die,” Lewis told Peace Arch News. “All CARP is saying is that we want you to have the conversation.”

The June event will mark the second time the organization has initiated formal discussions on the topic of assisted death; the first forum, held in February 2014 attracted an overflow crowd of more than 100 attendees, with organizers forced to turn away dozens.

It featured a panel of professionals from both sides of the assisted-suicide debate, and was described by Lewis as a “passionate and lively” discussion.

“I was met with a lot of resistance from people saying ‘no, we don’t want to talk about it,’” Lewis said.

“There was around 120 people, and there was some concern because of fire regulations, so that tells me that it’s an important conversation. I’m hoping this one will be full as well.”

On the panel this time around will be Dr. Derryck Smith, from the Dying with Dignity Advisory Council, Dr. Bill Cavers outgoing president of Doctors of B.C. and Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

Lewis said she is especially excited about panelist Katherine Hammond, who is currently in the midst of a well-publicized court case with Fraser Health Authority regarding her mother, Margot Bentley.

Bentley, a longtime nurse, has late-stage dementia and is in a semi-vegetative state. Despite a living will that Bentley wrote in 1991 stating she did not want to receive nourishment or liquids if there was no reasonable chance of recovery, the Fraser Health-run care facility where she lives continues to spoon feed her against her family’s wishes.

Last month, the B.C. Court of Appeal dismissed a bid from petitioners to let her die, after the B.C. Supreme Court ruled in February that Bentley must continue to be fed.

“You may not agree with what the daughter wants, but you can certainly empathize with her,” Lewis said.

While Lewis admits she has a keen interest in end-of-life issues – she spent several years as a palliative social worker with Richmond Health Services – she said it’s a topic that many of her peers are also starting to embrace.

“We baby boomers are the largest demographic in the Western world,” she explained. “We’re living longer and healthier lives, and we’re used to having things our way. We want the choice to die our way.”

Above all, Lewis said she hopes the June 17 forum helps people to become more comfortable discussing end of life, in what she describes as a “death-denying culture.”

“In other parts of the world, birth and death are all part of the natural continuum,” she said. “This is a subject that’s not going away.”

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