One of my close relatives recently died a few weeks after suffering a serious stroke which left her partially paralysed and unable to speak or communicate in any way.
This made me aware of a pretty ghastly moral dilemma facing many families. If you Google “elderly dying of starvation” you’ll find that it is increasingly common for elderly people in the West – particularly those who have serious medical conditions like dementia or strokes – to refuse food and die of starvation.
Each case is different and it will often be unclear if the refusal of food is due to the person losing the ability to swallow, the natural process of the body slowly shutting down or whether the refusal to eat is due to the elderly person not wishing to live with their condition any longer and so deliberately refusing food in order to die.
This presents families and friends with a rather unpleasant moral dilemma – do they allow medics to force-feed granny (or granddad) either through nasal or gastric tubes or do they allow the person refusing food to leave this life on their own terms?
This is a situation many of us may not know about and yet which many of us may have to face at some time in our lives.
For obvious legal reasons I will not describe my own situation.
So instead, here are a few brief stories from others who have faced this dilemma:
“Have any of you had the experience of this? My mother, at the age of 93, decided she had had enough some time ago and then stopped eating……. very distressing for us all to watch this happen……ended up in hospital and took her three and a half months to die…… very painfully in the end as she was vomiting up blood as her stomach degraded”
“Mom is 92 and in the early stages of multi infarct dementia, blind in one eye, almost blind in the second, can barely hear with a hearing aid. Terrible balance and always a fall risk. Before she started getting confused, she repeatedly told me she was tired of living like this and was ready to die. She lives with me and I have her on a 3 small meals with Ensure 3x/day to maintain weight (99 lbs). She was recently in respite care for one week and lost 5 lbs because they didn’t “encourage” eating and let her refuse the Ensure. My sister is telling me I shouldn’t pressure Mom to eat, that if she wants to die I should just let her eat as little as she likes and “let go”. Can one do this? Should I see her doctor for advice? If the dr says it’s OK for Mom to choose not to eat much, should I think about hospice? What are the legal (as in Adult protective services) implications of letting her starve herself? Has anyone been in this situation? Help!”
“My dad was 87 years old, was considered blind and had dementia. I agree that you need to seek help and hospice was amazing when I decided that it was time to let my dad go. I did not force food but did swab his mouth with cool water. The day he died was hard but I felt he did so with dignity and grace and that I got to be a part of that process”.
“Having watched a loved one starve to death and all their organs gradually shut down, every breath painful and laboured I think it’s about time the truth about ‘palliative care’ was told. It means watch them die, often slowly and horribly. The argument against helping people die seems to be ‘it’s too difficult to monitor and people might be killed who want to live’…. in other words this will be difficult to do so let’s not bother. The reality is horrifying”.