Should my 90-year-old mom refuse medical tests?

My brother thinks we should force her to undergo procedures, but she's tired of being poked and prodded


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Cary Tennis
July 30, 2010 4:24AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

My mother is almost 90 years old and lives alone in her apartment a few minutes' drive from my home. She has some serious health problems but is managing to care for herself and her home with some help from my husband and me. Her mind is sound and she is a reasonable person. I take her to her frequent medical appointments. She doesn't hear well and often misses or misunderstands what the medical professionals tell her so it is important for me to be a good listener as well as her advocate. We always spend time after her appointments reviewing my notes and going over what was said.

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She was recently diagnosed with a "new" condition by her internist and was referred to a specialist. The specialist wants to do additional procedures that will be invasive and painful, but might reveal a more serious condition. She is resisting this advice. The new condition is not causing her any pain or distress (at least at this time) and she says she is tired of being poked, prodded and tested and she just wants to live her life. She is concerned about the cost of her medical care, although she has good health insurance and financial resources.

I am supporting my mother's decision to hold off on any more tests or procedures but my brother is upset by her decision. He wants me to "force" her to go ahead with the procedures. He lives a long distance away, sees her infrequently and calls her occasionally. My mother values and depends on my advice and would probably go ahead with the tests if I insisted but I can see how stressful it is for her and how tired she is of the medical interventions. I think that as long as she is feeling relatively well and isn't in pain or distress her decision to forgo the procedures is reasonable at her age.

Am I doing the right thing by supporting the "do nothing" decision? What do I say to my brother?

A Concerned Daughter

Dear Concerned Daughter,

Yes, I think you are doing the right thing. Your mom has the right to make her own decisions.

There may be room for compromise. It would be nice to know more about what this new serious condition is. It may be that in two or three weeks, or a couple of months, things will change. But your mother has the right to decide how much poking and prodding from doctors she will endure.

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What do you say to your brother? Well, I would say two things. I would say, Let's just wait and see; maybe she will change her mind, and maybe the situation will become clearer. And I would also say, Why don't you come here now and spend some time with her?

She doesn't have forever. This opportunity to be with her will not return. Now is the best time there is. He should come and spend some time with her. That's what I would say to him.

It's not right to force people to undergo medical procedures they don't want to undergo. As long as people can understand the risks, they are free to refuse.



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Cary Tennis

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