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Seniors lacking in communication of end-of-life wishes: survey

November 26, 2013
by Lois A. Bowers, Senior Editor
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Your residents have some thinking and explaining to do.

One-fourth of Americans aged 75 or more years say they have not given very much or any thought to their end-of-life wishes. Further, 22 percent of Americans in that age group say they have neither written down nor talked with someone about their wishes for medical treatment at the end of their lives. Three in 10 of those who describe their health as fair or poor have neither written down nor talked about their wishes with anyone.

Those are some of the findings of a telephone survey conducted by the Pew Research Center earlier this year among a nationally representative sample of 1,994 adults.

Other survey highlights:

  • A sizable minority of the populace, 27 percent, say they have not given very much thought or have given no thought at all to how they would like doctors and other medical professionals to handle their medical treatment at the end of their lives. Thirty-seven percent say they have given much thought to their wishes for medical treatment at the end of their lives, however, and an additional 35 percent say they have given some thought to these issues.
  • Only modest change has occurred over time in the level of public attention to, and preparation for, end-of-life medical decisions. In this year’s survey, 37 percent of Americans reported having given a great deal of thought to their own wishes for end-of-life medical treatment. In the 2005 survey, it was 28 percent.
  • Thirty-five percent of all adults say they have put their wishes for end-of-life decisions into writing, whether in an informal document (such as a letter to a relative) or a formal, legal one (such as a living will or healthcare directive). That share is about the same as in 2005 (34 percent) and up from 16 percent in 1990.

The report also includes more survey results related to end-of-life medical treatment as well as results related to suicide and physician-assisted suicide. This report is the second of two survey reports on bioethics questions at the intersection of religion and public life. It follows Pew Research’s August report on radical life extension.

Together with the survey results, Pew Research is releasing two accompanying reports. “To End Our Days: The Social, Legal and Political Dimensions of the End-of-Life Debate” presents an overview of the debate on end-of-life issues in the United States. “Religious Groups’ Views on End-of-Life Issues” summarizes the teachings of 16 major American religious groups on physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia and other end-of-life questions. Additionally, an interactive web timeline highlights U.S. court rulings, referendums and other notable events related to end-of-life issues from the last half-century.

The full survey report and accompanying materials are available on Pew Research’s website.

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