Special Article: Palliative Practice Pointers

Voluntary Stopping Eating and Drinking

John W. Wax, MD, Amy W. An, MD; Nicole Kosier, MD; Timothy E. Quill, MD


J Am Geriatr Soc. 2018;66(3):441-445. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Voluntary stopping of eating and drinking (VSED) is a deliberate, self–initiated attempt to hasten death in the setting of suffering refractory to optimal palliative interventions or prolonged dying that a person finds intolerable. Individuals who consider VSED tend to be older, have a serious but not always imminently terminal illness, place a high value on independence, and have significant illness burden. VSED can theoretically be performed independent of clinician assistance and therefore avoids many of the ethical and legal concerns associated with physician–assisted dying or other palliative measures of last resort, However, VSED is an intense process fraught with new sources of somatic and emotional suffering for individuals and their caregivers, so VSED is best supervised by an experienced, well–informed clinician who can provide appropriate pre–intervention assessment, anticipatory guidance, medical treatment of symptoms, and emotional support. Before initiation of VSED, clinicians should carefully screen for inadequately treated psychiatric conditions, unaddressed symptoms, existential suffering, and evidence of coercion—consultation from palliative medicine, psychiatry, or ethics is often indicated. The most common symptoms encountered after starting VSED are extreme thirst, hunger, dysuria, progressive disability, delirium, and somnolence. Although physiologically similar to cessation of artificial nutrition and hydration, the onset and management of symptoms is often different. We propose an organized system for evaluating individual appropriateness for VSED, anticipatory guidance, and management of symptoms associated with VSED. A brief review of ethical and legal considerations follows.