Are The Elderly Selfish?

(Editor’s note: this is the first of several articles discussing medical care for the elderly).

An ancient debate is raising its ugly head: are elderly persons entitled to receive the best medical treatment available?

Our aging population coupled with rising healthcare costs is prompting a serious debate about just how far we should go in attempting to cure the elderly.

Are we investing too much in trying save the lives of the elderly and critically ill? Even worse, is it more economical to speed up the dying process by denying patients food and water in their last days?

But the issue goes deeper than simply money.  The real question focuses on what is the value of human life, regardless of age.  Ironically, the debate is not new.

In 500 B. C., the Greek playwright Euripides wrote:

“I hate the men who would prolong their lives by foods and drinks and charms of magic art, perverting nature’s course to keep off death.  They ought, when they no longer serve the land, quit this life and clear the way for youth.”

Fast forward to the present.  

Ethicist Daniel Callahan, co-founder and professor emeritus of the Hastings Center, clearly implies that older persons have a responsibility to get out of the way because, “the future belongs to the young, who bring new life and vitality to the human species.”

Writing an article last year for the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Policy Development, Callahan wrote that better coordination of care is needed because most deaths are the result of chronic disease and multi-organ failure.  Such conditions often require costly procedures to treat.

His suggestions included:

  • The elimination of fee-for-service medicine, which he claims rewards physicians for using expensive medical technologies.
  • Helping patients die at home rather than in hospitals (and the development of more low-cost technologies to make that possible).
  • Conducting research to find the most effective and least costly treatments.

Callahan claims medicine has “declared a war on death,” which he describes as an “unlimited pursuit of medical progress.”  In other words, we’re trying to reverse the reality that people eventually die.

Instead of beating the odds, he says such progress has only “given us an enhanced ability to keep sick people alive at a high cost financially and a no less high cost in terms of pain and suffering.”

He compares the current condition to the trench warfare of WWI which involved “heavier and heavier economic and human costs with increasingly less ground being won.”

Calling our current approach “a seductive primrose path,” Callahan says we have “traded off earlier, quicker deaths for later, drawn-out deaths.  The bargain needs to be changed.”

Callahan’s solution is simple; older people need to accept the reality of death and be willing to step aside to save precious resources for the young who contribute to society.

In order to reach that goal, he says we need better methods to “care” for critically patients and less efforts to “cure” them.  That approach will reduce costs and produce “better deaths.”

What he’s really calling for is healthcare rationing—determining what makes the most economic sense when it comes to caring for the elderly.

For example, if you’re 85 it may not be worth the money to give you a hip replacement or heart valve.  That money could be spent better elsewhere.

But, how old is too old?  If we put the cutoff of providing extensive medical care at 80, what’s to prevent us from making it 70, or even 60?  As costs continue to rise, there will be increased pressure to find more economical answers.

Such prospects paint a chilling picture of turning a blind eye to those in need of life-saving care.  Some have suggested that the best course is to simply give critically ill patients “pain pills” and let nature take its course.

However, such practices can actually hasten death by restricting the patient’s breathing. There is a fine balance between controlling the patient’s pain and ending the patient’s life.

There are even those who suggest speeding up the “dying process” by denying critically ill patients food and water. Sadly, there are reports from around the world, including some in this country, that such practices are already being used, including here in Georgia.

GRTL has received calls and emails from distraught persons with stories of relatives whose basic needs were intentionally withheld against the family’s or patient’s desires.

The debate over these life and death issues has been heightened over concerns that Obamacare paves the way for such practices.

We encourage everyone to learn more about these issues and share your concern with relatives and friends. It is imperative to know if your physician has a sanctity of life ethic before you or a loved one is in this situation.

The next article will discuss some of the possible impacts of Obamacare on the elderly and the critically ill.


By Wayne DuBois
Media Relations Advisor