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Dementia: Ethical Issues - A Natural Dying

feeding hydration mouth capacity

In general terms, no caregiver should feel that the technological extension of the life of a loved one with advanced Alzheimer's disease is necessary. One clear marker of the severe stage is the loss of the capacity to swallow. Artificial nutrition and hydration are generally not a solution because such intrusion is almost invariably unwelcome to the patient. Physical discomfort and complications are equally serious considerations. No wonder the person with Alzheimer's repeatedly pulls out feeding tubes. The Alzheimer's Association guidelines for the treatment of patients with severe dementia are clear: "Severely and irreversibly demented patients need only care given to make them comfortable. If such a patient is unable to receive food and water by mouth, it is ethically permissible to choose to withhold nutrition and hydration artificially administered by vein or gastric tube. Spoon feeding should be continued if needed for comfort" (1994).

In case consultations, caregivers who have already rejected the use of a feeding tube ask how aggressively to encourage eating and drinking by mouth in patients who are losing these capacities. As long as a person retains the capacity, food and water should be offered, and the taking of them encouraged by spoon feeding. A baby bottle can be helpful because the sucking reflex is often retained. But when the person no longer is able to swallow, it is of no benefit to fill the mouth with food and water.

After the capacity for natural eating and drinking has been lost, it should be firmly understood that a decision against artificial nutrition must also be a decision against artificial hydration (a fluid IV). Families need to be informed that their loved one will likely die within one or two weeks, and that dehydration is known to have sedating effects that ensure a more peaceful dying.

The clinician should proactively clarify for caregivers the burdens of invasive treatments in order to spare them the sense of guilt associated with not doing everything to prolong life. Chaplains should advise caregivers that their love is better expressed through compassion, commitment, and humble entry into the culture of dementia.

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