How to Stay Alive Long Enough Without Staying Alive Too Long


By Catherine Hammond, Esq.

Recently I’ve been thinking about how to stay alive long enough without staying alive too long. It’s a common problem but not often discussed. Sometimes medicine can solve the symptoms of a body shutting down, but often rather than making our lives longer we prolong our death instead.

Quality versus Quantity of Life

I realized how this happened to my mom during her journey with Alzheimer’s. During her nearly 20-year stay in a nursing home, we took many measures to keep her alive. That time she had pneumonia and after a week in the hospital she was released, “better.” The last eight years of her life when she couldn’t swallow well enough to eat solid food without choking, so we fed her thick liquids which over time became thin to accommodate her decreasing ability to swallow.

When she lost her ability to swallow thin liquids without choking and potentially developing pneumonia, we nearly prolonged her life even farther by considering the feeding tube suggested by nursing home staff. She had been in a vegetative state for nearly eleven years.

Prolonging Life – At What Cost?

They used to call pneumonia “the old man’s friend,” a relatively easy and painless way to leave this life. When we eliminate the easy ways of death we prolong life. But if you’re no longer able to live with the quality of life you want, like my mom, do you really want your life prolonged? In what kinds of circumstances do you want to override the natural process of your body shutting down, and when do you want to allow your body to move toward a natural death, seeking only palliative or comfort care?

Helpful Resources

We can’t choose whether or not we will die, but we can often influence the way that it happens. Give yourself and your family the gift of thinking through these issues and communicating your wishes. Katy Butler’s book The Art of Dying Well is a great starting point. If you’re part of our Legacy Protection Plan, our Taking Control of Your Healthcare Decisions workshop will also help you understand and navigate these issues.