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Taking Care of Nana

According to the Center for Disease Control, the United States has reached an unprecedented time in its history: Americans aged 65 years or older will double in the next 25 years to over 72 million of the US population, accounting for roughly 20% of said population by 2030.[1] As Americans age the cost of medical and health care continues to rise.[2] Coupled with this is the reality that medical resources are not infinite.

An aging population and limited medical resources has led to ethical questions surrounding the care of individuals. How do we decide who gets the liver, dialysis, or the last ICU bed? More specifically, how do we care for an aging population that drains our health resources and financial stability?

Allocating medical resources is predominantly filtered through utilitarianism, an ethical theory that works from the principle of utility; one must choose that which produces the maximal balance of good over bad. Regarding this theory: “It is often formulated as a requirement to do the greatest good for the greatest number, as determined from an impartial perspective that gives equal weight to the legitimate interests of each effected party.”[3] In relationship to medical needs, utilitarianism seeks to maximize the outcome of health care while minimizing its cost.[4]  

This ethical framework has had a direct impact on aging men and women in the US. Various utilitarian theories have held that older people should receive limited medical or health-care resources due to their perceived limited productivity, long term benefit to society, or the fairness of treating them at the expense of the young.

This has significant moral ramifications. Ultimately, utilitarianism affirms the right to perform an immoral action if it benefits more people than it harms. Without boundaries it also brings injustice by promoting the good of the majority at the expense of the minority. With this perspective it would be acceptable to withhold needed treatment to older people, who are seen as a minority in productivity and worth, in favor of the young who can contribute more to society.[5] These criteria are dangerously subjective and unable to accurately respond to our moral responsibility to both individuals and society.

Older men and women deserve our respect and protection, and are worthy of receiving life-saving care and medical resources no matter society’s perception of their value. Every human individual is worthy or respect. Therefore, we should refrain from showing partiality in our allocation of medical resources. We have a particular responsibility to protect the worth and dignity of older men and women who are vulnerable or unable to protect themselves, and to challenge cultural norms that would allow it to happen.

[1] “The State of Aging and Health in America 2013” (2013). (Accessed October 25, 2013)

[2] David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jefferey Brand-Ballard, Biomedical Ethics, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2011), 623.

[3] Tom L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress, Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 7th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 354-355.

[4]James R. Thobaben, Health-Care Ethics: A Comprehensive Christian Resource (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 259.

[5] Beauchamp and Childress, 359-360.

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