A 75-year-old Englishwoman shocked the world by opting for euthanasia over natural death from old age. In spite of being in good health, the retired nurse decided to end her life because she could not bear the thought of growing old and frail. Before her death, Gill Pharaoh stated that she did not want to burden her children with the responsibility of caring for her.
Pharaoh specialised in nursing the elderly – she apparently developed a distaste for the life of the elderly, having witnessed it in close quarters. Towards the end of her life, she had checked into a Swiss suicide clinic, and in her last interview, she revealed how she had lost interest in life. She no longer enjoyed gardening, dinner parties, and was suffering from tinnitus.
“I do not think old age is fun,” she had said. “I have just gone over the hill now. It is not going to start getting better. 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.’”
Photo: video caption
Pharaoh breathed her last on July 21, at Lifecircle – an assisted dying clinic in Basel – where liberal Swiss suicide laws are put into practice. She is survived by her two children and partner of 25 years, John Southall.
In her final interview, Pharaoh revealed that her family had supported her wish to die, although it would not have been their choice. Her daughter Caron particularly struggled with the decision, and her partner was also distressed. “It is not his choice at all and my kids are backing me, although it is not their choice,” she said. “My daughter is a nurse and she said, ‘Intellectually, I know where you are coming from but emotionally I am finding it really hard.’”
Yet, she chose euthanasia because she did not want to become a burden on her family or society. “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.”
Photo: Bovvering Books
Pharaoh had been toying with the idea of assisted dying for many years, but her resolve hardened when she accompanied an elderly man with motor neuron disease to a suicide clinic last year. Assisted dying is supposedly a popular option among a growing number of elderly Britons. According to one study, one in five people who went to Switzerland to end their lives between 2008 and 2012 were from the UK.
The news of Pharaoh’s death was met with mixed reactions in the UK. Right-to-life campaigners were angered by the issue. “This is another deeply troubling case and sends out a chilling message about how society values and looks after elderly people in the UK,” a spokesman for Care Not Killing said.
But Dr. Michael Irwin, co-ordinator of the Society for Old Age Rational Suicides, who helped Pharaoh in her decision, said: “Some will say 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.”
Photo: Julian Andrews
Pharaoh wasn’t suffering from any terminal illness at the time of her death – she simply did not want to become a “hobbling old lady.” She did say that she had the feeling she was going downhill. “I would rather go out when I am not quite at a peak,” she said. “I have dropped off a bit but I still want to be me, recognisably me and not have people look and think, ‘Oh, are you Gill, were you Gill?’ A lot of people are very good until they are 70 and then they start sloping off a bit.”
Southall and Pharaoh traveled to Lifecircle together, and on the eve of her death, decided to spend time alone together. They wandered through the city and later enjoyed a meal on the banks of the Rhine. “The whole evening was very tranquil and enjoyable,” Southall said. “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.”
Southall briefly spoke with her children over the phone, after her death. The family is planning a humanist memorial service in her memory, later this month.
Two months before her passing, Gill had written an article titled ‘My Last Word’. “Day by day, I am enjoying my life,” she wrote. “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 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, even demand help from their children but I think this is a most selfish and unreasonable view.”