Do Older Adults Know Their Spouses’ End-of-Life Treatment Preferences?

Moorman, Sara, Robert M. Hauser, and Deborah Carr
Working paper no. 2007-05


When terminally ill patients become incapacitated, the patient’s surrogate often makes treatment decisions in collaboration with health care providers. We examine how surrogates’ errors in reporting their spouse’s preferences are affected by their gender, status as durable power of attorney for health care (DPAHC), whether the surrogate and spouse held discussions about end of-life preferences, and the spouse’s health status. We apply structural equation models to data from 2,750 married couples in their mid 60s who participated in the 2004 wave of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. Individuals reported their spouse’s preferences incorrectly 13 and 26 percent of the time in end-of-life scenarios involving cognitive impairment and physical pain, respectively. Individuals projected their own preferences onto the spouse. Similar patterns emerged regardless of surrogate gender, surrogate status as DPAHC, discussions, or spousal health status. We discuss implications for surrogate selection and for the process of surrogate decision-making.