Objectives: Population surveys have documented increasing public support for euthanasia and assisted suicide but have not focused on the population of chronically ill older persons, obtained detailed sociocultural or health status information, or performed repeat assessments. This study seeks to describe the views of functionally-impaired Dutch elders on death, dying, and hastened death and to relate these to sociocultural and health status.
Design: One-year prospective epidemiologic survey.
Setting and participants: Community-dwelling participants in the longitudinal component of the Groningen Longitudinal Aging Study were assessed at home by interview and questionnaire in 1994 (n = 632) and again in 1995 (n = 575).
Measurements: Independent variables were sociocultural characteristics (eg, age, sex, income, education, religious affiliation, strength of religious belief), physical health status (number of chronic medical conditions, functional impairments), and mental health status (life satisfaction, self-efficacy, anxiety, depression, and neuroticism). Dependent variables were preoccupation with and fear of death, fears of the dying process, and attitudes toward hastened death.
Results: Low and stable rates of preoccupation with death and fear of death were found. Occasional but not persistent fears about the dying process were common. Fears of death and dying were most closely related to health status, especially mental health status. Views concerning hastening death were most strongly related to sociocultural variables, especially religious belief and affiliation. There was little change over the 1-year follow-up, with a trend toward less fears of death and dying and less support for hastened death. Significant changes in fears of death and dying and attitudes toward hastened death were not seen even in the 25% of subjects with the greatest deterioration in activities of daily living or greatest increase in anxiety and depression during the 1-year follow-up.
Conclusion: Beliefs about death, dying, and hastened death are stable over 1-year follow-up. Fears of death and dying are most strongly related to mental health in this community sample. Attitudes about hastening death are primarily related to religious belief and secondarily to mental health. Mental health factors may determine the distress associated with the prospect of death and dying, whereas religion may dictate the actions considered proper when dying.