The very old hope for a peaceful end

photo of elderly man
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Woody Allen once said he was not afraid to die, adding: “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” That nicely sums up recent research that studied the attitudes of people over 95. Most said they did not fear death but hoped to go quietly and quickly.

“I’d be quite happy if I went suddenly like that,” said one interviewee, snapping their fingers. The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge, England, and published in the journal PLOS ONE, found those interviewed quite willing to discuss dying and their end-of-life care, but also found that they are seldom asked about their preferences.

“Despite the dramatic rise in the number of people living into very old age, there is far too little discussion about what the ‘oldest old’ feel about the end of their lives,” said Dr. Jane Fleming, who led the study, in a news release. “We know very little, too, about the difficult decisions concerning their end of life care.”

One reason for the lack of information is that caregivers and family members often fail to ask. Another is that the very old are frequently hard to communicate with.

“I’ve not had long discussions, because of [her] hearing problem,” said a nursing home manager about one of her patients. “It’s very difficult to write them down on paper. And she’s got to shout the answer back at you and you’ve got to re-clarify it.”

More people had discussed their funeral preferences than had discussed what kind of medical treatment they wanted as they neared the end. Family members are often reluctant to bring the subject up while medical and nursing home staff are frequently too busy to hold extended conversations.

It’s a growing problem, however, with the number of very old people growing steadily. Adults alive today are more likely to live to be 90 or even 100 than any previous group in history, so the researchers say it’s time to deal with the issue straight on rather than leaving it to chance or putting it off until the last minute.

The study found that many of the elderly interviewed tended to see life as progressing one day at a time and did not express any great concern about the future. Many talked openly about the expectation that they would be dead soon. One man recalled that his mother-in-law had given a long-life light bulb to her granddaughter.

“Something for you, it’s not worth me having,” she said.