Dear Carol: My dad’s nearly 80 and was told during an appointment with his doctor last winter that he’s a likely candidate for future heart bypass surgery. This is no emergency, but we are trying to help him decide what to do. I worry about him having a heart attack, but he also has several other health problems to consider.
Now, the risk of coronavirus has made everything scarier. He says that he’s leaning against surgery because of all the risks. My brother says that we need to “force” him to have the surgery when the doctor says he’s ready. My sister says the surgery is too dangerous, especially with the virus, and we should let him be. I’m torn between their views. Who’s right? — GT.
Dear GT: This is a challenging spot for an older person to be in, but choices like this might be even tougher for adult children to come to terms with. The fact is, while you and your siblings want the best for your dad, what “best” means for your dad is up to him.
Decisions about surgery must be made with a risk versus benefit mindset at any age, but the balance is harder to determine as people age since, in general, the risks of surgery increase. Additionally, the current risk of contracting COVID-19 during a hospital stay, or afterward while still in a weakened condition, makes such a decision yet more complicated.
He needs to understand, though, that hospitals are developing systems that can make contracting the virus while there a much smaller risk. Virus aside, your dad is correct in that the chance of a stroke or worse as he undergoes this procedure, or even afterward, isn’t negligible. The chances of him having a negative reaction to being anesthetized at this age aren’t negligible, either.
These are all legitimate concerns. However, since surgeries like heart bypasses save lives, he shouldn’t dismiss the idea without careful consideration of moving forward.
Are there alternatives to surgery such as improving diet and exercise? Even if this is so, is he willing to make those changes? Don’t judge him harshly if he’s not. Many older people are simply not in the frame of mind to make the changes that could possibly improve their health and that, again, is up to him.
Keep an open mind and try to work with your dad on why he’s resisting so that you can understand his view. Help him find a balance between his fears and his projected but uncertain gain. Obtaining a second opinion might help him make a sound decision, as well.
Most of us want to keep our parents “safe,” but life decisions like this are generally about trade-offs. Your dad’s aware that there’s a risk for him either way.
What you can do is help him see the positive in both choices. The fact that his three caring children can’t agree on the best choice just highlights the fact that there is no simple answer.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.