Published: 2 August 2015
A HEALTHY and active former palliative care nurse has ended her life at a Swiss suicide clinic because she did not want to become “an old lady hobbling up the road with a trolley”.
Gill Pharaoh, 75, who wrote two books giving advice on how to care for the elderly, was not suffering from a terminal disease nor was she seriously ill. Her decision to end her life was based simply on a desire not to grow old.
Speaking to The Sunday Times shortly before her death in Basel on July 21, the mother-of-two said: “I have looked after people who are old, on and off, all my life. I have always said, ‘I am not getting old. I do not think old age is fun.’ I know that I have gone just over the hill now. It is not going to start getting better. I do not want people to remember me as a sort of old lady hobbling up the road with a trolley.
“I have got so many friends with partners who, plainly, are a liability. I know you shouldn’t say that but I have this mental picture in my head of all you need to do, at my age, is break a hip and you are likely to go very much downhill from that.”
Gill, who looked much younger than her age, is one of a growing number of Britons who are choosing an assisted death in Switzerland to avoid what they perceive to be the gradual deterioration and indignity of old age. While supporters say the choice of when to die is the ultimate freedom, critics fear people may take the decision under duress and want stronger safeguards.
A spokesman for Care Not Killing, which campaigns against assisted dying, said: “This is another deeply troubling case and sends out a chilling message about how society values and looks after elderly people in the UK.”
However, Dr Michael Irwin, the co-ordinator of the Society for Old Age Rational Suicide (Soars), who helped Gill with her plans to go to Switzerland, said: “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.”
Three weeks before her death, Gill was entertaining guests in the back garden of her north London home with stories of blowing a whistle at a street carnival and joking about the pale legs of John, her partner of 25 years.
While she became tired after working in her garden for more than 20 minutes at a time, suffered intermittent back pain following a bout of shingles in 2010 and had tinnitus, Gill was in generally good health and on no medication. However, she felt she was going downhill “in an almost imperceptible way” as she grew older.
“I would rather go out when I am not quite at a peak. I have dropped off a bit but I want to be still me, recognisably me and not have people look and think, ‘Oh, are you Gill, were you Gill?” she said. “A lot of people are very good until they are 70 and then they start sloping off a bit.”
Gill was accompanied to Lifecircle, the assisted-dying clinic in Basel, by John. On the eve of her death, the couple wandered through the old part of the city before enjoying a meal on the banks of the Rhine.
“The whole evening was very tranquil and enjoyable,” said John. “I think it is what we both wanted. Gill had been thinking about it for years and I had no intention of spoiling it by getting emotional and heavy.”
Gill was joking until the very last. For legal reasons, patients must confirm on video they understand that, by sliding a syringe driver to allow a fatal medication to be administered intravenously, they will die.
When Dr Erika Preisig, who runs Lifecircle, asked Gill if she did so, she replied: “Oh, yes, Erika, I have done it hundreds of times,” before seriously answering: “I am going to die.”
Following her death, John called Gill’s children, Caron and Mark. Both knew of their mother’s plans although Caron, in particular, had struggled to cope with her mother’s decision.
“It is not his [John’s] choice at all and my kids are backing me, although it is not their choice,” said Gill before the journey to Switzerland. “My daughter is a nurse and she said, ‘Intellectually, I know where you are coming from but emotionally I am finding it really hard,’ and I know she is.”
Before she died Gill arranged her own humanist memorial service, to take place later this month.
Two months before her death, Gill wrote an article, entitled My Last Word, in which she explained her decision to end her life.
“Day by day, I am enjoying my life. I simply do not want to follow this natural deterioration through to the last stage when I may be requiring a lot of help,” she wrote.
“I have to take action early on because no one will be able to take action for me. The thought that I may need help from my children appals me. I know many old people expect, and even demand, help from their children but I think this is a most selfish and unreasonable view.”
She said her experience as a nurse, including working in nursing homes, had opened her eyes to the reality of being elderly.
“If you work in a nursing home and you have people who are incontinent, who use bad language, who walk around the rooms and just take things, it is very difficult. It is not a job you enjoy,” she said.
“I just felt it was so bleak and so sad. We all did what we could but, for many of those old people, there wasn’t a lot you could do. We do not look at the reality. Generally, it is awful.”
According to a study by Zurich University last year, 126 of the 611 people who travelled to Switzerland to end their lives between 2008 and 2012 were from the UK.