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Friday, July 18, 2008

She turned 104 in April: Aggressive treatment for centenarians

Her father had sent her to secretarial school. She married, and then split up with her husband, a traveling salesman, during the Great Depression. She worked as a stenographer to pay rent to her parents for a small sunny bungalow overlooking a canal in East Rockaway, New York. She retired in 1961.

Then in 2003, when Hazel Homer was 99, after several recent hospital stays, more than one doctor advised that there was little to be done about her failing heart except wait for it to fail a final time. But Hazel was not interested in waiting to die of old age.

She kept talking to doctors until one agreed to install a biventricular defibrillator, five years ago. Now, at 104, her heart is still ticking, thanks to the specialized pacemaker and defibrillator that synchronize her heartbeat and can deliver a slight shock to revive her if her heart falters.

So far, it has never needed to shock her heart out of a potentially fatal arrhythmia.

Hazel now has a live-in aide at her tiny bungalow. She has been quite healthy throughout her life. Indeed, since the surgery, she has had only a single hospital stay, a brief one for pneumonia.

Her operation, a month before her 100th birthday, reflects a new frontier in medicine: surgery for centenarians. Some say, however, that aggressive treatment for the extremely elderly can give patients false hope and a diminished quality of life.

Advice to adult children of extremely elderly parents: Heed your parent's preferences about aggressive care, rather than your own.

Read a story about aggressive care on the other side of the coin.

Thanks to Anemona Hartocollis for the source article in today’s New York Times.

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