Elderly and Death

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What is death?

Death: the end of life, which can be determined in several ways but normally when the brain stops functioning.

Brain dead: no eye movement, pupils are fixed and dialated, no sign of breathing. 

Brain dead people kept alive - life support machine.

Life support machine can be legally turned off and death officially declared.

For religious person: death is point at which the soul (spirit) leaves body to begin afterlife

Concepts of sanctity of life, quality of life, value of life important when considering matters of death. 

Ideas of afterlife; influence person's thoughts on matters of death when alive; may affect reactions and emotions when person dies.

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Is death the end or a new beginning?

Heaven: a state of being with God after death

Hell: a state of being without God (or with the Devil) after death

Purgatory: a time of spiritual cleansing and preparation for heaven

Reincarnation: being born again in another form

Rebirth: continuing life in another form

Many people believe that death is the end, nothing else after. Only life on in the memories of family, friends or what you've achieved. 

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Main religious beliefs about life after death

Heaven and Hell: Jews, Christians, Muslims believe when person dies, God decides if a person spends eternity with God or in Hell with the Devil. Depends on how they've followed religion and actions throughout life. 

  • Muslims believe there is 'state of waiting', Barzakh - between death and day of judgement. Then enter paradise if Allah invites them.
  • Roman Catholics believe in time of spiritual cleansing and preparation - Purgatory 
  • Other Christians believe God chooses without purgatory. Day of judgement either at death or on day in the future
  • Jewish belief from Talmud - immediate entry into the world to come; reserved for small minority

Reincarnation and Rebirth: Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists believe it's dependent on good deeds, Karma. 

  • Cycle of birth, death, rebirth = cycle of Samsara (Buddhists). 
  • Reincarnation as sould discarding body at death. Liberation from cycle, Moksha
  • Buddhists don't believe in soul (anatta)
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Attitudes to the elderly

Ageism: Prejudice and discrimination against the elderly.

Problems faced by the elderly:

  • rely on state pension/benifits --> poverty
  • expectation elderly will retire and live on pension. Would prefer not to retire - keep body and mind working. Experience undervalued/discarded. Others see retirement as chance to do something else/less stressful
  • Illness; age related health problems
  • less mobile --> more dependent on others
  • Feel worthless to society; unable to make contribution through paid work
  • lonliness if husband/wife dies
  • attitudes of others (media) make elderly feel like burdens 

Elderly grew up with hardships during war. May have affected outlook on life - sense of realism 

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Who should care for the elderly?

Living at home: strongly independent, prefer to live in own home (with support). Local social services allocate social worker - arrange for someone to help with housework (small cost). Meals on wheels service. Family close by; may visit regularly. 

Living with family: extended family favoured by muslims --> treated as important member of the family. Some religious teachings encourage this out of gratitude, respect and recognition of wisdom the elderly posess. Other interpretations: finding appropriate way of caring for elderly parents, not living with family. 

Community options: 

  • Sheltered housing --> rent small flat within complex; communal area for socialising. Adapted for elderly, easier to use. Warden on duty to help residents. Allows elderly to have independence and privacy
  • Residential homes --> provide security and care (can't look after themselves). Have own room, communal lounge, dining room. Activities arranged
  • Care home --> elderly who are unwell. Given medical care if needed. 
  • Hospice --> If elderly person has terminal illness or close to death. May spend final days/weeks here. 
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What religion teaches about the elderly


  • Elderly respected for wisdom and experience. 
  • Buddhist care organisations help to care for elderly
  • Elderly person's children have responsibility to look after them - privilege; good Karma
  • belief in anicca (impermanence) - elderly example of this


  • Support elderly - vulnerable, should be respected
  • prefer to allow elderly to keep independence; if not possible, duty to consider options carefully to do what's best for them
  • Churches provide facilities and pastoral support - regular Holy Communion at home 


  • Pitri Yajna (one of five daily duties) to serve and care for parents and elderly
  • Parents part of extended family, important, respected, obeyed
  • Eldest son responsible for taking care of elderly parents
  • Caring for elderly gives good karma, helps goal of escaping samsara; attaining Moksha
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What religion teaches about the elderly

  • Islam:
    • Extended family society - often live together
    • Elderly parents have right to expect children to care for them - responsibility and duty of whole family (sacrifices made by parents in their life)
    • Looking after elderly provides spiritual growth
    • Sending elderly parents to home is seen as unkind and disrespectful
  • Judaism:
    • Fifth commandment - Exodus 20 'honour your father and mother'
    • Leviticus 19 - 'show respect for the elderly'
    • Encouraged to look after elderly through extended family; agknowledged not always possible.
    • Jewish community provide specialist homes for very elderly whose families can't support them. 
  • Sikhism:
    • Duty of sons to look after parents. Obligation seen as Sewa (service)
    • Sikh community offers day care to elderly in Gurdwara.
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Should we be able to take life?

Taking Life

'Do not do to another what you do not like to be done to yourself' - Mahabharata

If taking life seemed to have no reason, there would be no war. However, argued that fighting a war to defend country is right because killing can be justified for a sufficient cause. 

  • Jewish sixth Commandment - 'you shall not murder'
  • Old testiment - Leviticus 24 - 'if anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death'. (argument for death sentence)
      • Legal killing (execution), illegal killing (murder) 
  • Many people support killing of murderer - prevent murderer from killing anyone else.
  • All religions condemn illegal killing but many believe legal killing is sometimes necessary 
  • Buddhists reluctant to engage in any killing, incl. war
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Euthanasia: inducing a painless death, by agreement and with compassion, to ease suffering. From the Greek meaning 'good death'.

  • Voluntary: the person asks a doctor to end their life
  • Non-voluntary: the person is too ill to ask but it is believed to be in their best interests
  • Involuntary: as happened in Nazi Germany, disabled and sick people were killed without consultation
  • Passive: this is either where the dose of a pain-killing drug, such as morphine, is increased in the belief that it will not only control pain but shorten life; or treatment withheld or withdrawn to encourage natural process of dying. (some say not euthanasia)
  • Active: withholding treatment with the deliberate intention of ending life or giving drug that will end life. 

'Living Will': document that sets out person's wishes regarding types of treatment in future, if unable to make decision. 

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The Euthanasia Debate

'Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him' - 1 Corinthians 3

Intention of euthanasia to assist a person who's suffering and close to death, giving them sufficient medication to kill them. Act of compassion

Euthanasia illegal in Britain. Seen as assisting someone to take own life - suicide.

Others believe people have right to self-determination and should have some control over when own life ends. 

All main religions apart from Buddhism believe only God can make decision of who dies and when. 

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Religious Views on euthanasia

Buddhism: Euthanasia wrong, creates bad Karma - breaks First Precept not to harm any living thing. Suffering is fact of life - must be accepted. Could be argued that if intention merciful, could be allowed. 

Christianity: Disagree because of belief in sanctity of life; prefer to trust in God's mercy. Some cannot believe that a loving God would want people to suffer - God-given free will and intelligence give a person the right to choose end of life when quality greatly reduced

Hinduism: Believe in ahimsa so euthanasia not allowed. Suffering believed to be result of karma from previous life; must be accepted

Islam: Only Allah can take life - euthanasia against His plan. Passive euthanatia may be regarded as compassionate, not true euthanasia - enables nature to take its course.

Judaism: Life God-given and blessing that must be treasured. Because God gives life, only God can take away

Sikhism: Only God can give/take life - suffering part of plan. Euthanasia interrupts Plan and so not allowed. Some Sikhs believe euthanasia is justified in certain cases - quality of life

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How long should we keep people alive?

Life-support machine: a machine that keeps people alive when they would otherwise die. 

Other ways of keeping life: medicines that control serious conditions eg. Diabetes/Epilepsy; equipment used in hospitals with no after effects where heart can be restarted eg. Defibrillation.

Religious and moral teachings: Advances in medical technology allow religious thinkers to update beliefs. Use the same principles:

  • compassion
  • quality of life
  • sanctity of life
  • causing no harm to a living thing
  • using God-given talents to save life

Support turning off life machines for people who are brain dead.

  • Nor take life - which Allah has made sacred - except for just cause - Qur'an 17
  • I myself am He! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand - Deuteronomy 32

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Help for the dying and bereaved

Mourning: a period of time which signs of grief are shown

Hospice: a special place which people go to die with dignity

  • Can religion help? 
    • Afterlife - comfort to those who are dying and to the bereaved
      • Death becomes something new and better
    • Reincarnation or Rebirth - if earned good Karma by doing good deeds throughout life
    • Religious people support dying person/family. Offer support once person has died - mourning

"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.

  • Hospices:
    • Provide care for patients close to death; allow time to reflect on life and put practical and spiritual affairs in order. 
    • Offered pain relief to maintain relative comfort, pastoral support. Die with dignity in a familiar place. Also hospices for children.
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