Elderly oppose extreme actions to prolong lives


A clear majority of elderly Americans oppose the use of life-sustaining medical technologies to prolong their lives, but most have neither signed living wills nor appointed someone to act on their behalf, two new studies indicate.

A study of 103 residents at a Rockville nursing home reported that most of them did not want their lives extended by the use of respirators or feeding tubes.

Ninety percent of the residents said that if necessary, they would choose a relative to make their health-care decisions for them. But 60 percent said they had not discussed their treatment preferences with the relative they had chosen.

In a second group of 75 elderly residents at three meal programs for senior citizens in rural North Carolina, researchers found that almost 75 percent wanted only basic medical care if they were diagnosed with a terminal illness.

When asked whom they would designate to make medical decisions for them, 93 percent said they would choose a close relative. Fifty-five percent said they had not discussed the subject with their designee.

None of the North Carolina senior citizens surveyed had signed living wills, legal documents prescribing directions for medical care in the event of a terminal illness.

In both studies, less than 15 percent of those surveyed had discussed their decisions about end-of-life treatment with a doctor or other health-care worker.

The studies of the elderly, published in the February issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, found little difference in attitude between those in and out of nursing homes regarding the use of medical technology to prolong their lives.

Many senior citizens surveyed were not aware of their ability to use a durable power of attorney. This is a legal document through which people may designate one or more parties to make decisions on their behalf if they become incapacitated.

Starting in December, all hospitals and nursing homes admitting Medicare or Medicaid patients will be required to inform patients about state laws concerning living wills or appointing a surrogate who can make decisions about their care.

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