Enjoying life until the end
Melbourne woman Beverley Broadbent had observed many deaths before she planned her own. When she was just six years old, her mother died of heart failure at 36, leaving her alone with her devastated father. It was a swift but cruel death that came too soon for the family of three.
Later, when she was in her 30s, she helped nurse her 100-year-old grandmother until the end. It was a difficult, long decline for a woman who in her youth had been a feisty activist with the Temperance Society.
’’Why am I here?’’ she kept asking her granddaughter as doctors kept treating her various ailments.
Then, when she was 50, there was the anonymous man who called her one day while she was working as a counsellor for Lifeline. He had taken a drug overdose and wanted to talk to someone as he lost consciousness. While Beverley had been taught not to judge people in such circumstances and be there for the caller, she was alarmed to realise there was a young child with the man.
’’It seemed wrong that a child should be left to deal with this and so the two of us on duty decided we should try to stop him. My co-worker called the police while I continued to talk with him as the call was traced,’’ she wrote in her memoirs, which she published in January.
’’I anxiously did my best to keep him on the line until eventually a policeman took over the phone at the other end and told me everything was OK and the child was being cared for.’’
More recently, a resident in her Brighton East retirement village went to sleep one night and never woke up. While Beverley and her neighbours were sorry to lose their friend, they all thought she had been quite fortunate. There was a feeling that if death was nearing, it might as well be as peaceful as possible.
’’Everyone kept saying ’wasn’t she lucky’. That’s the way people feel about it,’’ she tells me during a meeting at her home on January 29.
That death encouraged Beverley to keep working on a plan to end her own life when she felt the time was right. Unbeknown to many of her friends, she knew she could emulate her neighbour’s gentle death at any moment.
She had acquired some barbiturates - the drugs euthanasia advocates sometimes call the ’’peaceful pill’’ - and an inquiry to Exit International confirmed she had enough for a lethal dose. If things went downhill, she had an escape plan.
Beverley Broadbent is 83 when she invites me to her home . When I arrive, she opens the door bright and alert. ’’Isn’t this weird,’’ she says, before inviting me in to meet Lucy, her poodle-Maltese cross. She asks if I would like a cup of tea.
As we begin talking, she strikes me immediately as direct, no-nonsense and eager to talk. Beverley tells me she is not dying, but is ready to die. She believes elderly people of sound mind should be able to choose how and when they go. She is not depressed, she says, but feels the downsides of ageing are outweighing the joys of life.
’’I look well and I walk well so people think I’m fine. But I have so many things wrong with me,’’ she says, patting Lucy, who is on her lap. ’’The balance is gone. It’s taking so much time for me to keep fit to enjoy myself that there’s not enough time to enjoy myself.’’
As a woman who has been extremely active both intellectually and physically during her 70s, Beverley says the ageing process has come to feel like a terminal illness. Arthritis is radiating through her joints, making it hard to get up every day, and peripheral neuropathy is numbing her legs and feet, causing her to stumble and fall.
In the past decade, she has had a hip replacement to repair the usual wear and tear as well as two thumb operations and has had carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrist. Ophthalmic migraines are regularly flattening her for hours at a time and two cataracts have been removed from her eyes.
She also has a lump in her breast, but says she told her doctor she did not want to know anything about it. She is not going to spend her final years having invasive procedures, let alone cancer treatment.
The nights bring little relief. ’’I get the most frightening cramps that wake me up every two hours,’’ she says. ’’I take a couple of Panadol Osteo, which helps me get through it, but each night, I think this is ridiculous, you don’t have to go on like this … no one sees that, but Lucy sees it.’’
Her sharp mind is also deteriorating in subtle ways. In the past year or so, she has become lost near her home and in places she has frequented for 50 years. Once-familiar names are escaping her more often and she is losing her way in discussions with friends.
’’I find it completely unsupportable … Some people say 'it’s OK, we’re all like that’. Now they may be like that and not care, but I do care. Conversation has been such an important part of my life.’’
The sum total has made Beverley want to set a date to die. She says that after she discovered the lump in her breast last July, she contacted Dr Rodney Syme, former vice-president of Dying with Dignity Victoria (Australia), to discuss her thoughts. She had sought his advice in the past when helping her close friend Betty navigate the hospital system in her dying days during 2010. She says Betty’s life was prolonged against her will and that she complained to the hospital about her treatment.
After several meetings, she says Syme urged her to keep thinking about her desire to die so she could be sure she was ready to end her life. He did not think she was depressed. In fact, he says he classified her as being in ’’outstanding mental health’’ and thought she was still getting a lot out of life.
Beverley took Syme’s advice. She decided to push on and enjoy as much of the the festive season over Christmas as she could with her friends and cousins. And it allowed her to tie up more loose ends.
But in the new year her desire to die increased. Beverley says her greatest fears are getting dementia without knowing it or falling and finding herself in a nursing home without independence. She now feels it is best to go a year too early rather than a year too late. She has chosen a date and is planning her final days.
She has decided her last day will be Monday, February 11, when many of her neighbours gather for a monthly dinner.
This will work well, she says, because they will be distracted and won’t come knocking on her door. The local doctor also visits on Tuesdays, so he will be able to find her and take care of her body, which she is donating to scientists at Melbourne University.
When I meet Beverley again on February 7, her social calendar is full. She has deliberately planned to be busy doing the things she loves right up until her death. Every morning, she is devouring the daily newspapers over breakfast, walking Lucy along the beach and in Brighton parks, and is still meeting friends for lunch. She is also still teaching a young Argentinian friend English during educational trips to the Prahran market and various galleries.
Beverley has sorted out her will and organised a new home for Lucy. She has even written instructions for friends who will co-ordinate a celebration of her life. Ribbon sandwiches, cakes and cheese will be served with wine. The liquor, she has told them, should be bought from a local store that lends glasses free. A list of the contact details of her many friends is ready so no one will be forgotten.
She says any money she has is being left for loved ones with a recommendation they give away 10 per cent to someone else in need. This was inspired by the immense joy she got from giving away $100,000 she inherited from Betty in 2010.
’’It was the best time I’ve ever had. I had friends who didn’t know I had this money who told me stories about really needing $3000 for something, so I’d just say ’here, I’ll write you a cheque for $3000, don’t worry, it’s not my money’.
’’I took friends on holidays to Bhutan, to Dunk Island, to the Murray River, to Lake Eyre and I gave all the young ones I know $5000 before they went overseas or bought a car. It was absolutely wonderful.
’’I don’t think people realise what pleasure you get from doing that.’’
Beverley wants her last day to be calm and like any other day. She says she will get up and take Lucy for one last walk before handing her over to a friend who has offered to care for her in the past if anything ever happens to her. She has told her friend to drop Lucy off the next day. If all goes to plan, he can raise the alarm when she doesn’t open the door.
When I ask her if she’s sad about saying goodbye to Lucy, Beverley assures me it will be fine. After all, Lucy is a dog, she says, ever pragmatic. But interestingly, Lucy’s behaviour has changed in recent days. ’’It’s really strange, she’s nearly prescient. She won’t let me out of her sight at the moment. Isn’t that extraordinary?’’ Beverley says. ’’She’s always been like that to a certain extent, but not like she is now.’’
On her last day, Beverley says she will take anti-nausea tablets in the morning and again at lunch and dinner time to make sure she can hold down the barbiturates. In the afternoon, she is planning to see the film Lincoln before returning home in the evening. She says there will be no sentimental music or fond farewells.
Beverley Broadbent was born in Melbourne in November 1929, just one month after the Wall Street crash plunged the world deep into depression. She grew up in Elwood in Melbourne’s south-east. When her mother died, her father struggled to care for her so he sent her to board at Firbank Grammar in Brighton.
Despite feeling homeless after her mother’s death, she had many happy childhood memories of eating Eskimo Pies at St Kilda beach, riding Queenie the elephant at the zoo and watching Don Bradman play cricket at the MCG.
She contracted mumps as a child, leaving her completely deaf in one ear. Nonetheless, she was a bright student who excelled at maths and loved to run and dance and sing in theatrical shows.
She did not go on to become a performer, but theatre would be an enduring love, taking her to hundreds of shows in cities around the world, including London and New York.
In her memoirs, she says her first job was as a secretary for Joy Toys in Malvern where she did extra shifts in the factory to save money for a trip to Europe. In 1952, she boarded the Stratheden at Princes Pier, which took six weeks to sail to Tilbury in England.
She met a friend there and hitch-hiked around Europe, staying in youth hostels before returning to London to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. In the diary she kept on the trip, she wrote about the large crowd that gathered until 1 o’clock the next morning at Piccadilly. It was all ’’too wonderful to describe’’, she notes in her diary.
After returning to Melbourne, she got a job working in the press office for the 1956 Olympic Games, where she was to manage foreign journalists. In her work she got to mix with visiting dignitaries, including Prince Philip. She remembers him complaining that the seats at a church he had opened in Alice Springs shortly before arriving in Melbourne were the hardest he had ever sat on.
During her late 20s, Beverley moved to New York to work at the Government of India Tourist Office, which was opposite the Rockefeller Centre. She took a road trip across the US before coming home in 1959.
She then joined the English Speaking Union for 10 years before settling at the Australian Conservation Foundation in 1972. She devoted much of the rest of her working life to the ACF where she was involved in campaigns to protect Kakadu, the Franklin River and the Great Barrier Reef. She later wrote a history of the organisation titled Inside the Greening: 25 years of the Australian Conservation Foundation.
During the early 1970s, a rousing anti-Vietnam War speech by Australia Party leader Gordon Barton motivated her to become a member. Within a year, she was standing as a candidate at the next election and over the following 30 years she took part in many state and federal elections for both the Australia Party and the Democrats, but never won.
In 1973, she stood against footballer Brian Dixon who later became a minister in Rupert Hamer’s Liberal government, and in 1975 she ran against Labor’s Frank Crean in the federal seat of Melbourne Ports before he became a federal treasurer.
Beverley never expected to get elected, but knew both parties needed to be on every how-to-vote card if they were to have any hope in the upper house, where proportional representation gave smaller parties a chance.
When the Democrats, under Meg Lees, gave preferences to Family First ahead of Labor, Beverley was appalled and joined the Greens, who she supported financially for years thereafter.
In her 80s, she donated money to GetUp! because she thought it empowered people who felt small against lobbyists for big corporations. She had also been a member of the Victorian National Parks Association, the Port Phillip Citizens for Reconciliation, the Public Transport Users Association and Dying with Dignity.
Volunteering was a big part of her life and a constant source of optimism. She donated her time to Lifeline for several years and taught many migrants English, including Vietnamese boat people and Sudanese refugees, some of whom she remained close to.
Beverley never married, but had two long-term relationships with married men, each of which lasted about a decade. One of the men was a naval officer whom she spent time with when he was visiting Melbourne.
At one stage, she considered marrying an American widower who headed General Electric in Australia, but she decided against it. She did not feel comfortable mixing with the top end of town and he insisted that she, an atheist, try to become a Catholic. She said she would never have married for the sake of it, but regretted missing out on having children and grandchildren of her own.
In her memoir, she wrote that she had lived a happy life full of love, travel and adventure and did not feel lonely or deprived.
’’I am well able to cope with being alone in old age, whereas many married friends who have lost their partner find this very difficult … I really enjoy living alone although I still work hard to keep in touch with all my friends and take part in the many activities which make Melbourne such a wonderful place to live.’’
Beverley says being an atheist has made it easier to contemplate suicide. While she has envied people whose faith has comforted them in difficult times, she does not believe there is a God.
’’I’m not scared because I don’t believe in any afterlife and I’m not guilty because I don’t have a religious belief in that way. I think my friends will understand … when they hear what has happened, they will understand.’’
She says although some people will disapprove of her choice to commit suicide and to tell her story, she hopes some will see it is reasonable to end your life when you want to, especially in old age.
’’It seems to me that in the last three years of your life, if you don’t want to be there, why should you be there?
’’I hope people can see how sensible it is and that I’m not stupid, I’m not depressed, I’m not sad. I’m having a good life that I’m enjoying right to the last minute.’’
As a strong environmentalist who has campaigned with Sustainable Population Australia, Beverley says there is also an argument that people who want to go should be allowed to go for the welfare of their community and the planet.
She says she shares the views of Nobel Prize winner Peter Doherty who last year predicted governments would have to start rationing healthcare more, especially in the last few years of people’s lives, if they are to keep paying for medical research and preventive health.
Beverley believes a safe system for physician-assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia would be introduced eventually, but in the meantime, she says she would rest peacefully knowing she had contributed to the debate.
’’I’ve been an activist since the ’70s, so it would really amuse me to still be an activist when I’m dead,’’ she says, laughing.
On the night of February 11, Beverley Broadbent hopped into her nightie, climbed under her bedspread and swallowed her lethal elixir. The next morning when her friend came by to return Lucy, there was no answer. When the door was finally opened, Beverley was found quiet and still beneath the covers, still clutching a chocolate frog.
- For help or information in New Zealand call:
Suicide Prevention Helpline 0508 828 865
Youthline 0800 376 633
Depression 0800 111 757
Samaritans 0800 726 666