Compassionate, informed advice about healthcare decision making

published by Hank Dunn - April 7th, 2021
Could COVID Be the New “Old Man’s Friend”?

Here’s the question: Should a nursing home resident with dementia get the COVID-19 vaccine?

There is no question that nursing home residents are at a high risk of dying should they get the coronavirus. That also goes for the underpaid and overworked staff who care for these vulnerable patients. One might think, “Of course, vaccinate them all.”

Not so fast.

I started thinking about this after reading a recent article from the bioethics think tank The Hastings Center, “Too Taboo to Contemplate? Refusing COVID Vaccination for Some People with Dementia.”

Just a month ago I wrote a blog post, “Making End-of-Life Decisions for Dementia Patients.” In it I wrote, “Here’s the question families of dementia patients face as they consider end-of-life decisions: Shall we save his life so he can become more demented and slowly decline further or shall we let him die peacefully?

Dena Davis, J.D., Ph.D., takes a similar approach in her Hastings Center article. She states the obvious: that if a person had declared in an advance directive that in the case of advanced dementia, they would refuse vaccines for flu or pneumonia, then that would also apply for COVID-19 vaccine. But, what of the patient who does not have a written advance directive or has failed to give such specific verbal directions?

Dr. Davis refers to several surveys where people expressed their preference to die sooner rather than spiral down with dementia. In one survey, more than half of the respondents were either “very unwilling” or “would rather die” than live in a nursing home. In another study of seriously ill but cognitively competent people a majority believed that either incontinence or “being confused all the time” were states equal to or worse than death.

We hardly need a scientific study to convince us that losing our minds and being totally dependent on others is a state almost all of us want to avoid. Now, a novel coronavirus comes along that is especially hard on elderly nursing home patients. It is also hard on the caregivers and vaccinating patients is partly to protect these folks and their families.

I agree with Davis’s personal preference that if she had dementia and was confined to a nursing home, she would give her surrogates instructions to withhold vaccines. Me too.

Once, pneumonia was thought of as “the old man’s friend” – a relatively peaceful way for the elderly to die, a welcome visitor. Dr. Davis speculates, “Could the novel coronavirus be today’s old man’s friend?”

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