What Is The “Old Person’s Friend” and Why Is It Their Friend?


My grandmother said her parents died from the “old person’s friend” and she hopes she will also.  What is it and why is it their ‘friend’?


A hundred years ago, in the days before antibiotics, the most common cause of death was pneumonia.  The doctor, on a house-call, made the diagnosis, prescribed tincture of laudanum [opium], and the patient would die peacefully in a few days or a week.


It was called the “old person’s friend” because:  grandpa or grandma was becoming increasingly frail, tired, hurting most of the time, had to have help for some personal care, couldn’t help the family on the farm any more, thought they were a burden to the family, and just generally were no longer enjoying life.  They were truly suffering – and ready to go!


So pneumonia would take them out of their misery.


But, today, what do we do?  We prescribe an antibiotic, which may stop the pneumonia, but doesn’t  really do much for their comfort.  We interfere in a natural process, which only serves to prolong their suffering.


Why do some families insist that their elderly parents take antibiotics?   There are many reasons, all well documented in studies and books, but it often comes down to “guilt” – the adult children feel they haven’t been there for mom/dad, haven’t done enough for them, and let what others say—like “you can’t let your mom die yet”—get to them!  They can’t let go of the memory of that functioning and available parent, a memory which they should hold onto but not let it mask the reality of a suffering elder.


In general, the more we interfere in a natural process, the more pain and suffering we cause.  Thus, your grandmother has likely lived a good life and is tired and looking forward to the next life, with no more pain and misery – so, if you love her, when her time comes don’t get in her way, let her go!


Two good books which discuss this issue are:   Dr. Monica Murphy-Jones’ “It’s OK to Die”; and Chaplain Hank Dunn’s “Hard Choices for Loving People” [you can buy it at Hospice of the Shoals for their cost, $1.].