The Danger of Speaking for the Dying Patient with “Intellectual Disabilities”

After suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for more than two decades, my grandma quietly passed away at a nursing home in California several years ago. This may sound like a story too common to tell in the United States. However, my grandma never wanted to go to a nursing home in the first place. As someone who spent the majority of her life in China, she only immigrated to the United States to reunite with her family after my grandpa passed. When her conditions first developed, her own children (my extended family who lived with her) considered her a burden and liability, and sent her away against her will – a stark violation of Confucian filial piety cherished in my culture. After being admitted to a public nursing home with very few Mandarin speaking staff and patients, her condition deteriorated rapidly, partly as a result of language barriers and general isolation from family and friends. She soon lost most of her basic functioning and remained in a borderline vegetative state for the last few years of her life.

I could not help but think about my grandma when I read a recently published piece in New York Times. In “A Harder Death for People with Intellectual Disabilities,” Tim Lahey, M.D., argues that current laws make it too difficult for the “loved ones” and legal guardians of patients with “intellectual disabilities” to make end-of-life decisions on behalf of patients who cannot speak for themselves. Based on his own experience with patients in intensive care units, he criticizes the burdensome legal procedures required in some states to allow legal guardians to “decline life-sustaining therapies” and medical providers to “avoid giving unwanted care that isn’t likely to heal” these patients. From his point of view, questions a judge may ask such as “how sure is the guardian or family member of the patient’s wishes?” and “what’s the doctors’ best estimate at a prognosis?” are slowing down the “prompt, patient-centered, bedside care that all of us deserve.” Continue reading

Loneliness as epidemic

By Wendy S. Salkin

Just a few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article confirming that, indeed, we are facing an epidemic of loneliness. There is “mounting evidence” that links loneliness to illness, as well as “functional and cognitive decline.” What’s more, loneliness turns out to be a better predictor of early death than obesity.

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who has spent much of his career working on loneliness, defines “loneliness” as “perceived social isolation.” Similarly, Masi, et al. (following Russell, et al. 1980) define “loneliness” as “the discrepancy between a person’s desired and actual social relationships.” As Masi, et al., point out, there is a distinction to be made between loneliness, on the one hand, and social isolation, on the other, although the two phenomena may indeed often go together. Whereas social isolation “reflects an objective measure of social interactions and relationships,” loneliness “reflects perceived social isolation or outcast.” Following Peplau & Perlman 1982 and Wheeler, et al. 1983, they go on to point out that “loneliness is more closely associated with the quality than the number of relationships.” (It’s important and timely to note that the 2016 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Bob Dylan, brought out one application of this conceptual distinction in his song, “Marchin’ to the City,” when he sang: “Loneliness got a mind of its own / The more people around the more you feel alone.”)

The health risks posed by loneliness are several and can be severe. Loneliness can contribute to increased risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. In a 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis in Heart, Valtorta, et al., reported that “poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increase in risk of incident CHD [coronary heart disease] and a 32% increase in risk of stroke.” And in a March 2015 meta-analysis in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Holt-Lunstad, et al., reported that a substantial body of evidence supports the following two claims:

  1. Loneliness puts one at greater risk for premature mortality. In particular, “the increased likelihood of death was 26% for reported loneliness, 29% for social isolation, and 32% for living alone.”
  2. The heightened risk for mortality due to “a lack of social relationships” (whether reported loneliness, social isolation, or living alone) is greater than the risk due to obesity.

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