February 8, 2012

Choosing when to go

His quality of life declining, Norman Morse wants all to know that he's made a very sane and sensible decision.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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“Why shouldn’t I be able to end my life in a painless, peaceful and dignified way?” asks Norman Morse, 91, of Falmouth.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Morse holds photos from his time of military service during World War II.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Though Morse had no children of his own, he has close relationships with six stepchildren from his second marriage. He's also fond of his brother Francis' four children -- three nieces and a nephew -- who call him "Uncle Norky."

In December, he gave them most of his belongings because he wanted to make sure family heirlooms "got in the right hands." He passed on stacks of daily dairies that he kept from age 13 until a few years ago. Antique furniture that once filled his home has been replaced with thrift-store finds.

His youngest niece, Elizabeth Morse of West Stockbridge, Mass., is his primary family caretaker. She isn't eager to lose her beloved uncle, but she's not surprised by his efforts.

"It's not necessarily the decision that I would make, but I do think it's rational," she said. "He's been talking about it his whole adult life. He always thought euthanasia should be legal. He never wanted to be dependent on anyone. Now, he's waiting for death and he'd like to hasten it. Whatever path he chooses, I've been setting up support systems to make sure he's comfortable and cared for."

In May, she drove her uncle to Southport for a luncheon reunion he organized with 20 childhood friends, then she had dinner with him at the New York Yacht Club in Manhattan, where he is the longest-standing member.

"Walking the three blocks from Grand Central Station was the first time he really showed his age," his niece said. "We had to stop every few minutes and rest."

Morse stopped eating on June 4, after having dinner at one of his favorite local restaurants. He checked himself into Maine Med on June 5, seeking medical help to ease the discomfort he knew would come from doing without food and water. The hospital staff immediately gathered a panel of experts to conduct a psychiatric evaluation.

"They said I wasn't crazy for wanting to end my life," Morse said. "One psychiatrist said, 'Norman's is not insane. He's perfectly sane. He's also sensible.' "


The clarity, practicality and boldness of Morse's actions are signs of "gerotranscendence," according to Gugliucci, the UNE gerontologist, who has witnessed the late-life choices of hundreds of seniors, including her parents.

The relatively new sociological term describes a later stage in life when people unleash themselves from social conventions, realize exactly what they want to do and are determined to accomplish it. It's a state of mind that influences small decisions, such as who they choose to spend time with, and big questions, such as whether they want to continue living.

People in this stage often resolve any regrets they may have and lose any fear of death. It can be a challenge for family members and others who view death as a forbidden step rather than a natural part of life.

"It's something that our health care system isn't really prepared to deal with," Gugliucci said. "We're trying to move to the 'good death' stage. I'm not saying we should hasten death, but we really need to listen to our elders. We need to have more conversations about what they're going through and be more supportive as a society."

Gugliucci has experienced both the "good death" and the "forbidden death" stages in her own family. In 2005, her father chose to stop eating when, at age 83, bowel incontinence had made his life miserable. She and her mother supported his decision. He was dead in four weeks.

"My parents had lived such a full life," Gugliucci said. "He wasn't sick, but he wasn't living the quality of life that he wanted. He couldn't go out for dinner and dancing with my mother anymore."

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Additional Photos

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Norman Morse poses for a photograph in May 1944, when he was stationed at Start Point, Devon, England, just weeks before the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France, during World War II. Morse was a second lieutenant in a radar company that followed Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army through France and into Germany.

Family photo

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Norman Morse is shown sailing in Long Island Sound off Southport, Conn., in 1960.

Courtesy Norman Morse

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This picture shows Norman Morse, age 4, sitting on a porch wall beside his older brother, Francis, and mother, Rosamond, in 1924, when the family lived in Pittsfield, Mass. They later moved to Fairfield, Conn., where he lived until retiring to Maine in 1988.

Family photo

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Norman Morse horses around with a cart carrying a friend while visiting Shelter Island, on Long Island, N.Y., in 1950.

Courtesy Norman Morse

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Norman Morse with his first wife, Helen, in 1954, the year they were married.

Courtesy Norman Morse


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