Never before in the history of human life on earth has the number of elderly people in the population been so high - and the numbers are going to grow even greater in the next few decades. In 2006, the first of the Baby Boom generation will turn sixty and the percentage of elderly in most Western populations will steadily increase to more than 20 per cent of the population through to 2030, when the last of the Baby Boomers turn sixty-five. As people age, it is inevitable that they begin to think of illness, disability and death and what, as individuals, they can do to ease their own passage. While critics of euthanasia often predict that vulnerable elderly people could be harmed by any liberalization of euthanasia laws, it has often been the elderly themselves who have been the strongest lobbyists in favor of a choice to die. Indeed, the majority of members in the more than 120 right-to-die organizations to emerge in the world over the last decade are in late middle age or in their senior years. These right-to-die advocacy groups, which include Toronto's Dying With Dignity, the Victoria-based Right To Die Society of Canada, or the Hemlock Society in the
United States, have almost single-handedly kept the issues in the public eye for the past decade. As
U.S. writer Anne Fadiman notes, meetings of the Hemlock Society during the 1980s tended to be "a genteel sorority of seniors" with educated, elderly women outnumbering elderly men or younger people of both sexes.
The relentless aging of the population means that in future years the debate over choices at the end of life is only going to increase. Just as Baby Boomers focused their attention on sex, then on birth and parenthood, then on middle age and menopause, the Baby Boom generation will become obsessed with the process of dying as the reality of their own death looms closer, giving even more momentum to the issues of the right to die. Indeed, many people are already having to face difficult medical dilemmas. A loved one is in an intensive care unit on a respirator with no hope of recovery - should doctors be asked to remove the machine? Mother has Alzheimer's and has developed pneumonia, should she be treated with antibiotics? Granny is eighty and frail but in otherwise good health when she goes into hospital for elective surgery - should she request that a "do not resuscitate" order be placed on her chart in case she has a heart attack on the ward? Is that sympathy? Should high levels of pain killers be given to a loved one dying of AIDS or cancer which will dull his pain but at the same time cloud his brain and hasten his death? These decisions are already being made hundreds of times each day in Canadian hospitals. Yet advancing age might not be a big enough factor to push the issue of choice in dying on its own. It becomes a compelling force when an aging population is coupled with the phenomenal change in medicine over the last fifty years, and how that change, in turn, has transformed the process of dying.