May 15, 2018 at 9:12 p.m.

Pre-ordering the starvation of people with dementia

Pre-ordering the starvation of people with dementia
Pre-ordering the starvation of people with dementia

By KATHLEEN M. GALLAGHER- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

My 95-year-old mother has severe dementia. The disease has robbed her of the ability to do so many things she used to fully appreciate in her life: plant her tomato and cucumber seeds in the garden and lovingly nurture them through the summer; read the Reader’s Digest from cover to cover every month; put on her best dress and jewelry to go to church; and never miss anyone’s birthday with a card, a handwritten note or a gift.

She’s also lost the ability to take care of herself. She can no longer shower or dress herself, control her bladder or bowels, or remember to take her medicines. As her only daughter, it is challenging and painful for me to watch my once strong and vibrant mother become frail and dependent on others for the basic necessities of living.

I miss those birthday cards. I miss my mom. But I thank God every day that she is being cared for by compassionate staff in an excellent facility.

The one thing mom can still do is feed herself, and she continues to enjoy every meal. She has not lost her sweet tooth, and will never turn down a piece of chocolate!

Others who have watched their loved ones slide into cognitive oblivion tell me that, one day, she may be unable to feed herself. If that day comes, I will gladly spoon the applesauce into her mouth to provide her with the sustenance she needs — because, despite it all, hers is a life worth living.

She is not terminally ill, nor is she in any pain. She still belly laughs at a good joke, enjoys a game of Scrabble and cries tears of joy when she holds a puppy in her lap.

I recently became aware of a new advance directive some so-called “right to die” groups are promoting. It’s explicitly intended for persons with Alzheimer’s disease or other advanced mental deterioration, and it’s all about providing — or, more accurately, not providing — food and drink by hand, not through a feeding tube or other medical device.

It’s so alarming to me, I’m having a hard time digesting it (yes, there’s a dark pun there). Called the “Advance Directive for Receiving Oral Food and Fluids in Dementia,” it is specifically intended for people like my mom.

It would allow a person who has mental capacity but who fears they may one day develop dementia to declare that, if that day comes, they do not want to be fed or given water. Even if they open their mouth and appear eager to accept it, the directive would absolutely ban the caregiver from giving it.

If my mother had ever signed one of these documents, I, as her legally-appointed healthcare proxy, would have to stand idly by and watch my mother starve to death. I would be prohibited from feeding her, with a spoon, even if she begged me for food.

I just can’t imagine this sort of thing can be legal. It can’t be, can it? Good Lord, have mercy, I suspect the courts will decide.

The document states: “Under the conditions that may be imposed upon me by advanced dementia, including my inability to communicate comprehensively with loved ones or caregivers, and my physical dependence on others for all aspects of bodily care, continuing life would have no value for me. If I appear willing to accept food or fluid offered by assisted or hand feeding, my instructions are that I do not want to be fed by hand, even if I appear to cooperate in being fed by opening my mouth.”

How can a competent person possibly determine that, should they later become incompetent, their life will hold no value? Who are we to judge?

This is euthanasia. It is elder abuse. It is discrimination against people with disabilities. It is the intentional elimination of our parents and grandparents when they become confused, difficult and dependent on others.

It is dead wrong.

(Mrs. Gallagher is director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s bishops on public policy concerns. See


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