Hospice or Palliative Care?

I realize that the Catholic Church teaches that it is permissible to discontinue extraordinary measures when someone is dying. My sister, who was in a nursing home, had heart failure and decided to stop eating. She was cognizant. They were going to start hospice care, but she died before that could happen. What was the right thing to do in this case?

I am sorry for your loss and your uncertainty about whether what your sister decided was the right thing to do. Because something can be done medically does not mean that it must be done at all costs. A patient has a right to discontinue treatment that has become burdensome and shows little potential benefit.

Palliative care aims to keep a person comfortable but is realistic about whether, under the present circumstances, this person’s illness can be reversed. It is always advisable for a person to have a living will, an advance medical directive document, and to designate someone else to make medical decisions if the patient is unable to do so.

The discontinuance of medical treatment under these conditions is not an indirect form of suicide or murder; it is a decision to allow this illness to run its course. This is even more true if there are several life-threatening illnesses that even the best medicine cannot reverse.

Hospice care varies according to relevant state law, is a more technical term than palliative care and is begun after the relevant legal papers have been signed.

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