When I was a teen, my maternal grandfather Jerry died from a sudden heart attack at age 60. His death was immediate. Later, when I was a young man, my favorite uncle Jack (Jerry’s son) also died quickly from a heart attack. He was 58. Now that I am the same age, I worry that I will be hit with a sudden heart attack–just… about… now! But things have changed, and these days life usually ends slowly.
Stephen Kiernan’s book, Last Rites: Rescuing the End of Life from the Medical Profession reveals that since 1960, the life expectancy of a North American adult has been lengthened by 31 years. This is a stunning change in human life expectancy within an incredibly short time frame. He notes that even in 1978, the most frequent causes of death among adults were sudden–heart attack, stroke, and workplace accidents. Well, death from sudden causes may be down dramatically, but we have not defeated death–only delayed it. We’ve traded a quick death for the long, downhill trajectory of age-related memory and/or mobility losses.
Terry Schiavo famously died without documents outlining her wishes for or against life-prolonging treatment. The ensuing controversy surrounding the decision to remove Terry from life support was a tragedy, and should serve as a wake-up call to the rest of us. Everyone should create a simple power of attorney (or a living will) appointing a trusted loved one as a health care decision-maker.
However, you should be aware that Health Care Powers of Attorney (HCPOA) and living wills are woefully lacking if you have a diagnosis of long-term illness such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s disease. These documents use “triggering language” which creates an authorization to act only when you have been diagnosed as “terminally ill,” which is generally defined as having a condition which will be fatal within six months or less. Doctors do not consider Alzheimer’s or other long-term illnesses to be ‘terminal illnesses’. Patients need a way to make written declarations of their desire (or lack thereof) for antibiotics, tube-feeding, etc. when they are in the late stages of these long-term illnesses and likely afflicted with dementia.
Watching a loved one endure long-term suffering is one of the most terrible experiences there is. I would have loved to have shared more years with my grandfather and uncle–but when I see friends and clients suffer multiple year declines, it makes me wonder if maybe Grandpa Jerry and Uncle Jack were “the lucky ones.”