Care of the elderly focus of Ottawa conference on doctor-assisted death

Health care providers debated what the new law on doctor-assisted dying will mean to their work with elderly patients with dementia at a conference in Ottawa on Monday.
How to address issues around doctor-assisted death for people with dementia was the topic of a conference at The Royal on Monday. (iStock)

At what point is an elderly patient with dementia still capable of making his or her own decision about doctor-assisted dying and should that patient be allowed to give consent for assistance with dying in advance?

Those were some of the questions posed at a conference for Ottawa health-care providers, held at The Royal on Monday, which looked at the legal and ethical considerations around end-of-life care.

The conference comes just a few months before the federal government is set to unveil new legislation on the issue of assisted dying.

Many doctors and nurses on the front line in the care of the elderly said they are conflicted about their role in providing end-of-life care once the new legislation is in place.

Reduced quality-of-life

Ottawa health care providers said they see patients with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia decline to the point when their quality-of-life is greatly reduced.

According to geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Vinay Lodha family members often feel helpless.

"I often hear they would never want to live this way or suffer this way."

Dr. Vinay Lodha is a geriatric psychiatrist with The Royal Ottawa Health Care Group. (Steve Fischer/CBC)
The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that only a "capable" person has the right to chose doctor-assisted death and they can't make that decision far in advance of needing that assistance.

But those attending the conference wondered at what point does the person become incapable and once they are incapacitated, should others be given the right to make that decision for them?

I think it will open up the door to death by money- Judith Wahl, head of The Advocacy Centre for the Elderly

Judith Wahl, head of The Advocacy Centre for the Elderly in Toronto told the conference that allowing anyone other that the patient to make that decision could prove to be a slippery slope.

"I think it will open up the door to 'death by money,'" Wahl said. "It will put a lot of pressure on health-care professionals to use physician-assisted death to free up beds."

The health-care providers at the conference said they also expect that whatever new law is introduced in June, the ethical and legal debate over the practical application of doctor-assisted death will continue for years to come.