Things took their first unexpected turn on Nov. 13, 2001, when my father—then 79, pacemakerless and seemingly healthy—collapsed on my parents’ kitchen floor in Middletown, making burbling sounds. He had suffered a stroke.
He came home six weeks later permanently incapable of completing a sentence. But as I’ve said, he didn’t give up easily, and he doggedly learned again how to fasten his belt; to peck out sentences on his computer; to walk alone, one foot dragging, to the university pool for water aerobics. He never again put on a shirt without help or looked at the book he had been writing. One day he haltingly told my mother, “I don’t know who I am anymore.”
His stroke devastated two lives. The day before, my mother was an upper-middle-class housewife who practiced calligraphy in her spare time. Afterward, she was one of tens of millions of people in America, most of them women, who help care for an older family member.
Their numbers grow each day. Thanks to advanced medical technologies, elderly people now survive repeated health crises that once killed them, and so the “oldest old” have become the nation’s most rapidly growing age group. Nearly a third of Americans over 85 have dementia (a condition whose prevalence rises in direct relationship to longevity). Half need help with at least one practical, life-sustaining activity, like getting dressed or making breakfast. Even though a capable woman was hired to give my dad showers, my 77-year-old mother found herself on duty more than 80 hours a week. Her blood pressure rose and her weight fell. On a routine visit to Dr. Fales, she burst into tears. She was put on sleeping pills and antidepressants.
My father said he came to believe that she would have been better off if he had died. “She’d have weeped the weep of a widow,” he told me in his garbled, poststroke speech, on a walk we took together in the fall of 2002. “And then she would have been all right.” It was hard to tell which of them was suffering more.
As we shuffled through the fallen leaves that day, I thought of my father’s father, Ernest Butler. He was 79 when he died in 1965, before pacemakers, implanted cardiac defibrillators, stents and replacement heart valves routinely staved off death among the very old. After completing some long-unfinished chairs, he cleaned his woodshop, had a heart attack and died two days later in a plain hospital bed. As I held my dad’s soft, mottled hand, I vainly wished him a similar merciful death.
A few days before Christmas that year, after a vigorous session of water exercises, my father developed a painful inguinal (intestinal) hernia. My mother took him to Fales, who sent them to a local surgeon, who sent them to a cardiologist for a preoperative clearance. After an electrocardiogram recorded my father’s slow heartbeat—a longstanding and symptomless condition not uncommon in the very old—the cardiologist, John Rogan, refused to clear my dad for surgery unless he received a pacemaker.
Without the device, Dr. Rogan told me later, my father could have died from cardiac arrest during surgery or perhaps within a few months. It was the second time Rogan had seen my father. The first time, about a year before, he recommended the device for the same slow heartbeat. That time, my then-competent and prestroke father expressed extreme reluctance, on the advice of Fales, who considered it overtreatment.
My father’s medical conservatism, I have since learned, is not unusual. According to an analysis by the Dartmouth Atlas medical-research group, patients are far more likely than their doctors to reject aggressive treatments when fully informed of pros, cons and alternatives—information, one study suggests, that nearly half of patients say they don’t get. And although many doctors assume that people want to extend their lives, many do not. In a 1997 study in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 30 percent of seriously ill people surveyed in a hospital said they would “rather die” than live permanently in a nursing home. In a 2008 study in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 28 percent of patients with advanced heart failure said they would trade one day of excellent health for another two years in their current state.
When Rogan suggested the pacemaker for the second time, my father was too stroke-damaged to discuss, and perhaps even to weigh, his tradeoffs. The decision fell to my mother—anxious to relieve my father’s pain, exhausted with caregiving, deferential to doctors and no expert on high-tech medicine. She said yes. One of the most important medical decisions of my father’s life was over in minutes. Dr. Fales was notified by fax.