Why It Matters to Talk About Values with Dementia Patients

As relieved as we are about finally seeing the awful year 2020 in the rearview mirror, I’d say that one useful thing the pandemic has given us is an in-your-face awareness of mortality and the gravity of serious illness. And it’s given us permission to talk about it more freely.

But what about loved ones who may be newly diagnosed with dementia? As caregivers know only too well, dementia progresses to the point where ultimately those afflicted may not be able to think clearly, reason well or speak. They become increasingly dependent on others for their care. So, to honor these loved ones, to support them in the way they’d want to care for themselves and to make sure that medical professionals understand the best way to respect what matters to them, it is vital to ask the questions regarding future care when loved ones are still able to articulate their answers.

How do you even begin to discuss these life-and-death issues? Especially if loved ones are anxious about their health and their future, or resistant to the idea that anything is wrong at all? Before trying to talk about the pros and cons of specifics of what I’d call “the Big Three” — CPR, mechanical ventilation and feeding tubes – it’s important to talk about values first. One great source of advice for this is the <a href="http://(https://theconversationproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/ConversationProject-StarterKit-Alzheimers-English.pdf) which offers a “starter kit” for those caring for people with dementia, at various stages.

The starter kit stresses the importance of beginning with exploring what matters to loved ones, what they fear, what kind of setting they envision if they were at the end of life, how involved they want to be in their medical care and who they’d like to have around them. It also emphasizes the importance of keeping the talk simple. Its questions are clear and straightforward. Finally, it stresses how important it is that you convey that this process is an act of love and that you will be there to support your loved one, no matter what.

Understanding loved ones’ values provides the framework for future decisions as dementia progresses. Advance directives, and health care proxies (those who will be responsible for speaking for loved ones) should reflect these values.

Some Points to Consider About Artificial Nutrition

Of the “Big Three,” let’s focus here just on artificial nutrition (feeding tubes): Sadly, people in the final stages of dementia may not remember how to eat, or be able to chew and swallow. Artificial nutrition is one solution to this issue, but it is not without its own problems According to the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, for patients near the end of life, artificial nutrition and hydration is unlikely to prolong life and can potentially lead to medical complications and increased suffering. How? For starters, it makes people feel bloated, nauseated, and/or develop diarrhea.

Experts say it’s better to offer a little food or something to drink, and if your loved one wants it, even a minimal amount, fine. If not, don’t force it. There are other ways to continue to nourish your loved one, if food and fluids are no longer an option.

A useful template of an advance directive for people with dementia, published by End of Life Washington, addresses the feeding-by-hand issue. It states, “If I accept food and drink (comfort feeding) when they’re offered to me, I want them. I request that oral food and fluids be stopped if, because of dementia, any of the following conditions occur:

• I appear to be indifferent to being fed.
• I no longer appear to desire to eat or drink.
• I do not willingly open my mouth
• I turn my head away or try to avoid being fed or given fluids in any other way.
• I spit out food or fluids.
• I begin a pattern of coughing, gagging or choking on or aspirating (inhaling) food or fluids.
• The negative medical consequences of symptoms of continued feeding and drinking, as determined by a qualified medical provider, outweigh the benefits.”

No doubt this is all a lot of food for thought (pardon the pun) for caregivers and loved ones alike. But it’s the hard work of discussing and documenting loved ones’ values and wishes that will be the foundation for the compassionate and appropriate care that loved ones deserve later on in the course of illness.

Wishing everyone a safe, healthy and happy 2021.

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