Researching a magazine article and then this book, I would discover something about the perverse economic incentives within medicineand the ignorance, fear, and hope within our own familythat promoted maximum treatment. I would contemplate the unintended consequences of medical technology's frighteningly successful war on natural death and its banishment of the "Good Death" our ancestors so prized. Armed with that bitter wisdom, I would support my mother when she reclaimed her moral authority, defied her doctors, refused a potentially life-extending surgery, and faced her own death the old-fashioned way: head-on.
My mother and I often felt like outliers, but I know now that we were not alone. Thanks to a panoply of relatively recent medical advances ranging from antibiotics and vaccines to dialysis, 911 systems, and airport defibrillators, elderly people now survive repeated health crises that once killed them. The "oldest old" are the nation's most rapidly growing age group. But death is wily. Barred from bursting in like an armed man, it wages a war of attrition. Eyesight dims, joints stiffen, heartbeats slow, veins clog, lungs and bowels give out, muscles wither, kidneys weaken, brains shrink. Half of Americans eighty-five or over need help with at least one practical, life-sustaining activity, such as getting dressed or eating breakfast. Nearly a third have some form of dementia, and more develop it with each year of added longevity. The burden of helping them falls heavily on elderly wives and middle-aged daughters, with the remainder provided by sons and husbands, hired caregivers, assisted living complexes, and nursing homes.
Every day across the country, family caregivers find themselves pondering a medical procedure that may save the lifeor prevent the dyingof someone beloved and grown frail. When is it time to say "No" to a doctor? To say, "Enough"? The questions surface uneasily in medical journals and chat rooms, in waiting rooms, and in conversations between friends. However comfortingly the questions are phrased, there is no denying that the answers, given or avoided, will shape when and how someone we love meets death. This is a burden not often carried by earlier generations of spouses, sons, and daughters. We are in a labyrinth without a map.
Before I shepherded my parents through to their deaths, I thought that medical overtreatment was mainly an economic problem: a quarter of Medicare's roughly $560 billion in annual outlays covers medical care in the last year of life. After my father's death, I understood the human costs. After my mother's death, I saw that there could be another path.
In our family's case, the first crucial fork in the road appeared six and a half years before my father died, in the fall of 2001. It began with a family crisis, an invitation to a distant daughter to open her heart, and a seemingly minor medical decision: the proposed installation of a pacemaker in the aftermath of a catastrophic stroke.
Excerpted from Knocking on Heaven's Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death by Katy Butler. Copyright © 2013 by Katherine Anne Butler. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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