How could the right-to-die issue impact long-term care?

Rona Ambrose and Provinces seeking solutions. Photo courtesy of

Rona Ambrose and Provinces seeking solutions. Photo courtesy of

Government interest could spark possibility of future change in laws

October 8, 2013 — Deron Hamel 

There’s been much talk recently among provincial health ministers about people’s right to die with dignity. While this conversation isn’t new, it has been getting a lot more attention, due to Canada’s Health Minister Rona Ambrose sitting down last week with her provincial counterparts to discuss the issue.

While Ambrose reaffirmed that the government has no plans to change the Criminal Code to accommodate assisted suicide for people who are terminally ill, it cannot be ignored that the federal government’s willingness to hear input about the matter is signalling the possibility that the tide could one day turn.

Increased discussion within government was triggered by a law proposed in Quebec’s National Assembly that would allow doctors to help terminally-ill patients, under specific circumstances, end their lives if they chose.

But how could this impact the long-term care sector?

Clearly, there’s a balance to be struck. Promoting quality of life is a cornerstone of long-term care providers’ values and culture. Moreover, long-term care homes are committed to upholding people’s dignity. But what about the dignity of a person who is terminally ill, and how can dignity be upheld if a person is not allowed to die the way they choose?

There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all answer here. But the right-to-die question is something the sector needs to ponder, since any given long-term care home has many people living with terminal illnesses, from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease to neurological illnesses.

Something else to consider is the fact that long-term care homes are today seeing an increased number of residents with serious complex-care issues uncommon to long-term care in years past — homes are now admitting residents with terminal illnesses such as Huntington’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly called ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease).

These are illnesses that have considerable impact on a person’s dignity and quality of life. In countries that allow physician-assisted death under certain circumstances, such as Switzerland, the patients often have these illnesses.

Naturally, the right-to-die issue raises controversy; after all, doctors are legally and morally tasked with prolonging people’s lives, not helping end lives. The question to be asked is this: is the current system helping or hindering patients if prolonging a terminally-ill person’s life against their will is decreasing their life quality? As caregivers in long-term care homes, how could allowing physicians to assist people in the dying process affect you?

If you would like to comment on this issue, please e-mail deron(at), or call 800-294-0051, ext. 23.

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