I was surprised to recently learn that the Alzheimer’s Association had entered into an agreement with Compassion and Choices to “provide information and resources about Alzheimer’s disease”.
Thankfully, the Alzheimer’s Association has now terminated that relationship as of January 29, 2023, stating that:
“In an effort to provide information and resources about Alzheimer’s disease, the Alzheimer’s Association entered into an agreement to provide education and awareness information to Compassion & Choices, but failed to do appropriate due diligence. Their values are inconsistent with those of the Association.
We deeply regret our mistake, have begun the termination of the relationship, and apologize to all of the families we support who were hurt or disappointed. Additionally, we are reviewing our process for all agreements including those that are focused on the sharing of educational information.
As a patient advocacy group and evidence-based organization, the Alzheimer’s Association stands behind people living with Alzheimer’s, their care partners and their health care providers as they navigate treatment and care choices throughout the continuum of the disease. Research supports a palliative care approach as the highest quality of end-of-life care for individuals with advanced dementia.” (All emphasis added)
ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE AND COMPASSION AND CHOICES’ RESPONSE
While countries like Belgium and the Netherlands have legalized assisted suicide for Alzheimer’s, no US state allows this-yet.
In the meantime, Compassion and Choices is the well-funded organization promoting medically assisted suicide laws and VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) for people in states without assisted suicide laws.
Now, Compassion and Choices has a whole section on their website titled “Dementia End-of-Life Care- Identifying your preferences before dementia takes hold” stating that:
“One in two older adults die with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia” and that ”60% of Americans with dementia receive non beneficial burdensome medical interventions.”
Thus, Compassion and Choices insists that:
“Every mentally capable adult has the right to document their desire to decline medical treatments. In the early stages of dementia, patients may also choose to voluntarily stop eating and drinking. To learn more, go to the Compassion & Choices‘ Dementia Values & Priorities Tool and other resources.” (Emphasis added)
IS VSED REALLY AN EASY WAY TO DIE?
As I wrote in my 2018 blog “Good News/Bad News about Alzheimer’s”:
“Although media articles portray VSED as a gentle, peaceful death, a 2018 Palliative Practice Pointers article in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society titled “Voluntary Stopping Eating and Drinking” states:
“VSED is an intense process fraught with new sources of somatic and emotional suffering for individuals and their caregivers…The most common symptoms encountered after starting VSED are extreme thirst, hunger, dysuria (painful urination due to concentrated urine NV), progressive disability, delirium, and somnolence.” (Emphasis added)
Most chillingly, the authors state:
“Because an individual with delirium may forget his or her intention and ask for drinks of water, caregivers will struggle with the need to remind the incapacitated individual of his or her own wishes. This possibility should be anticipated and discussed with the individual in advance. While reminding the individual of his or her prior intentions may feel like coercion, acquiescing to requests for water will prolong the dying process for someone who has clearly articulated the desire to hasten death.” (Emphasis added)
The authors also state that if the patient’s suffering becomes severe, “proportionate palliative sedation and admission to inpatient hospice should be considered”. This is not the so-called peaceful death at home within two weeks that people envision with VSED.
Lastly, on the legal requirement of a cause on the death certificate, the authors state:
“the clinician may consider including dehydration secondary to the principle illness that caused the individual’s intractable suffering. Although VSED is a self–willed death (as stopping life support might also be), use of the word “suicide” on death certificates in this context is discouraged because in incorrectly suggests that the decision for VSED stemmed from mental illness rather than intolerable suffering.” (Emphasis added)
So, like physician assisted suicide, the real cause of death is basically falsified with the rationale that the deliberate stopping of eating and drinking to hasten death is just another legal withdrawal of treatment decision like a feeding tube.
And as I wrote in my 2020 blog “Caring for an Elderly Relative who Wants to Die”, a doctor trying to help his grandfather who did not have a terminal illness but rather was “dying of old age, frailty, and more than anything else, isolation and meaninglessness” found that just voluntarily stopping food and water (VSED) was too difficult and he had to use “morphine and lorazepam” during the “12 long days for his grandfather to finally die.”.
The lessons this doctor said he learned were that:
“despite many problems with physician-assisted dying (physician-assisted suicide), it may provide the most holistic relief possible for people who are not immediately dying, but rather are done living.”
“stopping eating and drinking is largely impossible without knowledgeable family members and dedicated hospice care.” (All emphasis added)
Years ago, my mother told me that she never wanted to be a burden on her family.
I never told my children that-especially when they were teenagers and already thought I was a burden to their lifestyles!
Instead, I told them that the “circle of life” includes caring for each other at all ages and stages. Such caring also eliminates future guilt and leaves a sense of pride that we did the best we could for each other during our lives.
When my mother developed Alzheimer’s in the late 1980s (and later terminal thyroid cancer), a friend asked if I was going to feed her. At the time, my mother was fully mobile and able to get ice cream out of the freezer and eat it. I was shocked and offended.
“Do you want me to tackle her?!” I asked my friend.
“Oh, no!”, he answered, “I was talking about a feeding tube later on.”
I told him that my mother would die of her disease, not from deliberate starvation and dehydration.
Near the end of her life, we did spoon feed my mother and she enjoyed it very much before dying peacefully in her sleep.
For decades now, I have enjoyed caring for many people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias both personally and professionally but I remain alarmed by the all too common attitude that people with Alzheimer’s “need to die” either by VSED or physician-assisted suicide.
I am pleased with the Alzheimer’s Association’s decision to end its agreement with Compassion and Choices.
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