On Avoiding Deep Dementia

Norman L Cantor

The Hastings Center Report
The Hastings Center Report

Some people will confront Alzheimer’s with a measure of resignation, a determination to struggle against the progressive debilitation and to extract whatever comforts and benefits they can from their remaining existence. They are entitled to pursue that resolute path. For other people, like myself, protracted maintenance during progressive cognitive dysfunction and helplessness is an intolerably degrading prospect. The critical question for those of us seeking to avoid protracted dementia is how best to accomplish that objective. One strategy is to engineer one’s own death while still mentally competent to do so (even in the stage of mild dementia). If I were to use a preemptive strategy in the face of a dementia diagnosis, I would probably choose to stop eating and drinking, a process known as voluntarily stopping eating and drinking. An alternative tactic for avoiding prolonged dementia would be to allow oneself to decline into moderate dementia—thus losing capacity to perform self-deliverance or even to make serious medical decisions—but before getting to that point to provide advance instructions rejecting prospective life-sustaining medical interventions. These advance instructions would authorize palliative but not curative measures. My current personal instructions define the point of intolerable cognitive decline triggering medical nonintervention as “mental deterioration to a point when I can no longer read and understand written material such as a newspaper or financial records such as a checkbook.” These instructions dictate allowing my demise at a point of moderate dementia when I may not be perceptibly suffering, when I may still be getting some rudimentary satisfaction from my debilitated life, and when I no longer recall the preoccupation with personally intolerable indignity that motivated my instructions. Can I expect that my advance instructions will be implemented in those circumstances? Is it lawful, and is it moral for a surrogate decision-maker and associated caregivers to allow an uncomprehending, ostensibly content but demented individual to die? My analysis herein contends that it is not only lawful and moral but also legally required to implement clear, considered advance instructions even at a stage of moderate dementia.

Cantor NL. On Avoiding Deep Dementia. Hastings Cent. Rep. 2018 Aug 16;48(4):15-24.

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