“Ask a Priest: May I Stop Medication for My Dad Who Suffers from Alzheimer’s?”

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Q: My father, whom I love greatly, is suffering Alzheimer’s and being kept alive by the medication I give him daily. Day by day he is not himself and mentally slipping further away. My question is, would it be kinder for me to stop giving him his medication and let him pass on via a heart attack? Or to watch as he slips further into madness until he is finally taken by God? I feel that I would killing him if I stopped medication; however, if he is no longer the man that raised me mentally when he wakes up every morning, It seems a disservice to God to have my father see him that way. -H.C.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I am very sorry to hear about your dad. It must be very painful to watch a loved one fall deeper into the grip of Alzheimer’s.

Let me try to emphasize two points.

First, people who are sick or in declining health should be helped as much as possible, within limits. By “limits,” the Church means that we are not obliged to use extraordinary means to keep someone alive, but that we should use all other means.

My guess is that the medication you are giving your dad is probably ordinary means. This is because it is easy to administer and does not seem to be burdensome — in terms of pain, discomfort, cost, etc. — as regards your dad’s heart condition. To withdraw this medication, and to consequently hasten a heart attack, would not be morally acceptable.

There are four numbers in the Catechism that touch on end-of-life care; they are listed under the heading of “Euthanasia,” which the Church opposes. I will quote the four numbers in full here:

No. 2276. Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.

No. 2277. Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.

Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.

No. 2278. Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.

No. 2279. Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable. Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged. [end quoted material]

You will notice that No. 2278 talks about discontinuing extraordinary care. This is care that is more complex and can impose excessive burdens — physical or emotional as well as financial — on the individual. The distinction between ordinary and extraordinary is a moral category, rather than a strictly medical one, which could vary in individual cases. In the case of your dad, some increased or added treatment, such as a heart catheter or surgery, might be considered burdensome and therefore extraordinary and optional.

My second point is that your dad is still your dad, even though he is suffering from Alzheimer’s. And it is not a disservice to God that your dad is still alive. Even in his weakened state, he still has the image of God in him. He has an immortal soul and therefore has a dignity that needs to be respected.

You want to be confident that you are doing a great act of charity by taking care of your father. As it says in Scripture, “My son, be steadfast in honoring your father; do not grieve him as long as he lives. Even if his mind fails, be considerate of him; do not revile him because you are in your prime. Kindness to a father will not be forgotten; it will serve as a sin offering — it will take lasting root” (Sirach 3:12-14).

For your own good, you might see if there is a support group in your area. Try to maintain a good prayer life and sacramental life, and see if others can help you with your duties.

I hope some of this helps. Rest assured that you and your dad will be included in one of my Mass intentions. God bless.

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