DOCTORS are fighting too hard to keep the elderly alive "long after any joy in doing so has fled", a former church leader has said.

Richard Holloway, who was Bishop of Edinburgh from 1986 until he resigned from the Scottish Episcopalian Church in 2000, said a tendency to over-treat patients left some older people stuck in a "medicalised existence whose sole purpose is staying alive" and "keeps too many people alive long after any pleasure or meaning has gone from their lives”.

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Mr Holloway, 84, who has previously backed attempts to legalise assisted suicide in Scotland, is exploring the topic of death in his latest book, 'Waiting for the Last Bus', which will be published in March.

He said that it was one of the great successes of modern medicine that most people would live into their eighties, but added that such increasing longevity was also having “a profoundly distorting effect on the balance of society as a whole” and placing a huge financial strain on the NHS as the number of people surviving a long time with multiple chronic conditions increases.

He writes: “Care of the elderly is close to swamping the resources of the National Health Service, turning it into an agency for the postponement of death rather than the enhancement of life.”

Instead of being “sentenced to years of mournful dissolution” many of them “long to be blown out like a candle”, adds Mr Holloway.

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Speaking to the Sunday Times, Mr Holloway, who still attends church but describes himself as an agnostic who "doesn't expect" an afterlife, said he has already planned his own funeral and joked that his obituary will "be summed up in something that will then go in the cat litter tray".

Mr Holloway, who is married with three children and two grandchildren, grew up in Possilpark, Glasgow and later Alexandria in Dunbartonshire, before training for the priesthood.

He remains one of the most outspoken and controversial figures in the Church as an advocate for gay rights and was condemned by George Carey, the archbishop of Canterbury, in 2000 for his book 'Godless Morality', which argued in favour of keeping religion out of ethical debates.

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His latest intervention comes as the NHS prepares to mark its 70th anniversary and amid a debate about its future direction.

Mr Holloway said: “Visiting the elderly can be a dispiriting experience if they spend their time rehearsing their ailments and complaining about the inattention of the local health professionals who are run off their feet trying to care for them. The reality is that death has rung their bell, and peace will come only when they open the door and say you got here sooner than I expected, but come in and sit down while I get my coat on.”

Peter Bennie, chairman of the BMA in Scotland, said: “For every medical intervention, a judgment should be made about whether it is appropriate and proportionate, in the sense of providing a real benefit to the individual patient.

“It is equally important, however, that patients are not abandoned or denied treatment for reversible conditions or to relieve symptoms simply because they seem to be approaching the end of their life.”

Brian Sloan, chief executive of the charity Age Scotland, said he would welcome more open conversations about death and end-of-life care.

He said: “We believe everyone should be able to have a dignified and pain-free death, with choices in how they are cared for in their final months and days. This may include choosing to refuse certain medical interventions.”