Is Age a Determinant Variable in Forgoing Treatment Decisions at the End of Life?

Guest post by Sandra Martins Pereira, Roeline Pasman and Bregje Onwuteaka-Philipsen

Decisions to forgo treatment are embedded in clinical, socio-cultural, philosophical, religious, legal and ethical contexts and beliefs, and they cannot be considered as representing good or poor quality care. Particularly for older people, it is sometimes argued that treatment is aggressive, and that there may be a tendency to continue or start treatments in situations where a shift to a focus on quality of life in light of a limited life expectancy might be preferred. Others argue that an attitude of ageism might prevent older people from receiving treatments and care from which they could benefit, thus resulting in some type of harm and compromising the ethical principles of beneficence and non-maleficence.

When the need to make a decision about treatment concerns an older person at the end of life, physicians need to reflect on the following questions: In this situation, for this person, what is the best course of action? Is this person capable of assessing the situation and making a decision about it adequately herself? What are the preferences of the person? Who needs to be involved in the decision-making process? What will be the consequences of starting or withholding this treatment?

Our study shows that decisions to forgo treatment preceded death in a substantial proportion of older people in the Netherlands, and more often than in younger groups. Also, it shows that compared to the younger age groups, in the older age group differences were more significant when deciding on withholding than on withdrawing a treatment. This is interesting because it suggests that Dutch physicians, especially those caring for older people, assume a palliative culture and approach, thus meeting the relatively more frequent preference older people have of receiving comfort care and not aggressive treatments aiming to prolong life. Moreover, it seems that decisions to forgo treatments among the ‘oldest old’ (i.e., older people aged 80 and above), when compared to the youngest age group, were made more frequently due to a wish of the patient, indicating consideration and respect for the patient’s wishes.

However, with regard to patient participation in decision making, we also saw that most of the patients, regardless of their age, did not discuss the forgoing treatment decision with the attending physician. As our findings indicate, this occurred mostly because the patient was not able to assess the situation and make a decision about it in an adequate manner. This result highlights the need to further implement strategies aiming at implementing advance care planning in practice and in an earlier stage of the disease trajectory.

Finally, based on our study, we cannot assume that any age-related differences in forgoing treatment decisions occur due to an attitude of ageism. On the contrary, our study suggests that care for older people in the Netherlands seems to be focused on providing palliative care, also suggesting a better acceptance that these patients are nearing death. This is particularly relevant for the discussion about the meaning of dying well in older ages, having an impact on older people’s experiences and end-of-life care.

Read the full paper here.

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