Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Ethics of Ageism

There is a weekend column in our local paper that I occasionally glance at. It has to do with ethics. People write in a question and the journalist gives them a response based on what he has determined is ethical. This week's column caught my attention because it was about a senior. A daughter of a very elderly woman wrote in because her mother was refusing to eat and she wondered if it was okay to leave her to eat tea and biscuits as she requests or if she should be more aggressive in attempting to get her to eat. The answer from the columnist's perspective was that she didn't have any joy in life any more and perhaps had a change in taste buds so wanted to die a natural death. His advise - keep her hydrated but don't try to force food.

I have to say this response disturbed me considerably. At no point did the person writing in or the person responding, talk about having a conversation with the mother. From the letter it did not appear that the daughter had asked her mother why she had chosen not to eat or explored the issue with her doctor. Nor was this even suggested to her. There was no indication of dementia or mental health issues. The response was paternalistic and ageist to say the least and reminded me of a woman I knew whose family put her in a retirement home of their choosing where she did not like the food. They claimed she was fussy and it really wasn't anything to be concerned about until she died a couple of years later and they revealed that she had lost a considerable amount of weight because of the food issue and had wasted away.

I am not a doctor or an ethicist but I don't believe people who are mentally competent wish to starve themselves to death. I believe that food is one of the few pleasures we have for our entire lives and as such, if someone is refusing food there must be a reason and it should be explored.  First and foremost, someone should ask her why. If she doesn't know, then a doctor's visit is in order. I can only imagine the guilt the daughter would feel watching her mother starve to death - why she would write to a newspaper instead of talking to a medical professional is beyond me but clearly there is more to this story than that letter conveyed. Regardless of someone's age, it is neglect to not investigate an issue of not eating. The response to the daughter's letter was at the very least irresponsible and most definitely not ethical.


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