Dying Better, Even If It Means Sooner

Delaying death with excessive, expensive end-of-life care often does more harm than good.

Focus on the simple things, not extraordinary measures
Focus on the simple things, not extraordinary measures


Life expectancy in the United States has increased by 30 years in the last century. Despite our longer lives, many Americans continue to fight death’s inevitability in ways that are costly socially, economically and spiritually. Our over-reliance on medical “miracles” is causing us to throw more and more money at the final year of life rather than grapple with the difficult – but ultimately more gratifying – work of approaching death more willfully by removing the sense of crisis and making the most of the moments that remain.

Defying and delaying death often remains the focus of many care providers even when patients reach their 80s, 90s and 100s. These individual decisions add up to the single greatest expenditure in the national health system: Care in the last 12 months of life accounts for over 25 percent of total expenditures for both Medicare and Medicaid. And while some studies have argued for cost savingsassociated with hospice care, others show cost neutral effects of engaging hospice in the last months of life, depending on how cost is measured and over what period of life. Meanwhile, a number of states are passing aid-in-dying laws, which will have moral, social and economic impacts, but the bills are simply directed at ending suffering; the changes in dying made possible by such laws (notably in Oregon) have not been the subject of economic analysis to date.

In short, driving down end-of-life costs will be slow because these costs are sustained by medical practice and patient choice, both social and behavioral practices subject to slow change. While this level of spending is unsustainable, there are greater costs – constantly fighting against death’s inevitability is also deeply unsatisfying.

Looking back, many sons and daughters I have worked with regret having encouraged a parent to undergo a hip surgery. Spouses regret pushing for their loved ones to be intubated, and many patients struggle to balance the suffering with the life-prolonging effects of their treatments. Such regrets are the outgrowth of an approach to death that is focused on delaying death rather than being present and accompanying loved ones as they are dying. Accessing death-delaying treatments often comes at the expense of easing discomfort and being intentional about the nonmedical ways we can help our dying loved ones.

End-of-life laborers are very clear about limiting the extraordinary measures some of their patients allow in their own lives. Their plans, shaped by their work with the dying, give clear direction about how they want to live: deliberately and without much medical intervention as they encounter illness and disease later in life. They sometimes mourn the life-extending measures that can prolong life at a very low quality and instead encourage loved ones to be present as often as possible, continue routines, tell stories, touch our dying loved ones and find ways to meaningfully connect, like looking at photos, being together in nature, listening to music or sharing a favorite food.

Although our medical advances are partially responsible for our longer years, when we begin parting with life, many end-of-life laborers remind us to focus on the mundane, not the extraordinary. They encourage family members and patients themselves to pause before pursuing treatments, to be as deliberate and purposeful about planning as possible and to enjoy those things that have always delighted or engaged them for as long as possible.

The friends and family members who are most proud of how they helped their loved ones often talk about little tokens: a friend clipped part of a favorite flower so her friend could smell her yard one more time; a daughter got the quilting club to gather in the hospice room; a son dug up a favorite book and read and read and read until he was certain his dad could no longer hear his voice.

Obviously families who seek life-prolonging measures do so for more moments with their loved ones. Unfortunately, aggressively delaying death often becomes the focus of the final weeks and days. Pursuing significant medical care often distances us from our loved ones: time spent in waiting rooms, surgical units and follow-up appointments, rather than watching the geese take off over a lake, taking that final trip to one’s homeland or reconnecting with friends who have been distant.

As more of us live longer and die slower, the challenge for many Americans will be to avoid rushing toward solutions and to live, sometimes quietly and uncomfortably, in the shadow of death’s certainty. End-of-life experts have taught me that recognizing limits might save us from some of the real damage we do to each other – asking our elders to fight on too long, to endure too many procedures and tests and surgeries and to spend too much time in the hospital instead of at home or in the garden – or holding the hand of someone who loves them.

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