Is failing to put a feeding tube in a dying Alzheimer’s patient starving her to death? The short answer is no.
That basically was the question posed to me by the daughter of one such patient two months ago. Her mother had died four weeks earlier. She had read my book Hard Choices for Loving People for the first time seven years ago. That was four years after her mom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. So for eleven years her mother was on that long, slow decline toward her final days. Her death came after a stay in the hospital when the family agreed with the physician’s recommendation to provide comfort care only and not insert a feeding tube.
In the months leading up to the hospitalization this daughter spent five to six hours every day at the nursing home helping with her mother’s care. Most telling for me, it sometimes took two hours to feed her mother. This is so common for the end of dementia patients like this mother. They choke and cough in an effort to clear their airway. Occasionally, these eating difficulties lead to pneumonia. Finally, these patients just lose the ability to swallow.
As difficult as it can be, studies have shown that these hard-to-feed patients can be successfully and safely fed. Even so, when all efforts at careful hand feeding fail it is a sign that the last days of a patient’s life have arrived.
The daughter went on in her e-mail to me: “Since that time [of her death], I have felt extremely guilty. All my sisters still feel we did the right thing by following the wishes Mama expressed in her living will, but I struggled, and still struggle, as the living will she signed was 14 years ago. Mama may not have lived very long if she had a feeding tube but, then again, it may have given her years of life since I was with her so much of the time to ensure she got good care.”
I know this is hard but the research is clear. Feeding tubes do not add one day to the lifespan of advanced dementia patients like this mother. From all I can tell from this correspondence this patient did get good care. Comfort care, palliative care, and hospice care are quite appropriate for advanced dementia patients. Give them ice chips or sponge swabs dipped in water to quench their thirst. Give them a loving touch and spiritual support. There are a great many measures we can do to ease the suffering of an Alzheimer’s patient’s last days. Inserting a feeding tube is not one of them.