The Reality of CPR for Seniors: Get the Facts

cpr for seniors

CPR is brutal on seniors

An important end-of-life consideration for seniors is whether or not they would want to have CPR if their heart stops beating or if they stop breathing.

What we usually see on TV paints a rosy picture of CPR and leads many of us to think everyone would want it. After all, the CPR shown on TV is quick, painless, and almost always works.

In real life, the CPR process is brutal and survival rates are low.

Before making a choice about CPR, it’s essential for seniors to know the risks, benefits, and their chance of recovery.

We explain how CPR works, special risks for older adults, the chances of survival, and post-CPR quality of life.



How CPR really works

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is used as a treatment for sudden cardiac arrest. It’s much more violent than what’s shown on popular TV shows.

Real-life CPR means pushing down into the chest at least 2 inches deep and at least 100 times per minute.

Sometimes, air is forced into the lungs. Then, an electric shock is sent to the heart to try to get it to beat again.

If CPR is successful, all that pounding on the body usually results in major physical trauma.

This trauma often includes broken ribs, lung bruising, damage to the airway and internal organs, and internal bleeding.


CPR risks for seniors

Along with the physical trauma, patients who receive CPR also have to deal with serious long-term consequences like possible brain damage from oxygen deprivation.

First, older bodies are physically weaker and less likely to recover from the CPR itself.

On top of that, the existing health conditions that caused heart failure in the first place make it even less likely that they’ll recover at all or have reasonably good quality of life.

Because of all this, some people argue that using CPR on seniors leads to an unnecessarily prolonged and painful death.


CPR survival rates are low among seniors

Research suggests that only 10-20% of all people who get CPR will survive and recover enough to leave the hospital.

For chronically ill elderly patients, a study has shown a less than 5% chance of surviving long enough to leave the hospital after receiving CPR.

Another important factor is the quality of life that people will have after recovering from CPR.

Being well enough to leave the hospital doesn’t mean they will have the quality of life they desire.

Making a meaningful recovery from the cardiac arrest and the damage caused by CPR will be very difficult for seniors with existing health conditions.


Seniors need to know the facts before making a decision about CPR

This doesn’t mean that CPR isn’t a valid choice for your older adult.

It means that it’s important for them to understand the facts and realistic outcomes before making their choice.

In a study, when older adults over 85 years old were made aware of their chances of survival, only 6% chose to have CPR.


Talk to the doctor about CPR risks and benefits

Your older adult (and you as their advocate) should ask their doctor about the risks, benefits, and their realistic post-CPR quality of life before making a decision.

CPR is one of the few treatments that patients have to choose not to do – it’s part of the standard protocols used by hospitals and emergency responders.

If your older adult decides not to have CPR, they must have their doctor sign a DNR or POLST form. They can change their mind at any time and update the forms as needed.


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By DailyCaring Editorial Team
Image: Larry Mulvehill


  • Reply July 19, 2019

    Thomas Finnigan

    I had CPR when I was found on the floor, not breathing and no pulse. I woke up in ICU where I remained for almost a month. From there I was put in a few nursing homes. I’m out now and looking liv ng in an assisted lving facility. I have to use a walker as my muscles are weak. Given the atroscious , often abusive treatment in the nursing home. And my inability to walk, I think had I been given the option, I would have refused CPR. No one loves loves life and fears death more than me, but there is no quality of life any longer. I am more or less at the mercy of uncaring strangers.

    • Reply July 20, 2019


      Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so sorry that all this has happened 🙁 It sounds like you’re continuing to recover, so even though it’s a slow process, hopefully in time you’ll regain more strength.

  • Reply June 15, 2019


    I am 79 and a survivor of Code Blue. I had sepsis, pneumonia, a lung drain tube and other lung operation, heart failure and a fib.

    I had CPR and it is what this article says..fractured rib and internal bruising…I was hospitalized for 60 days. I am happy to say, I have almost regained and resumed my life as it was before because I have the support of family and countless friends and good care.

    I do think it makes a difference of your physical condition when you receive CPR. If you are in good health, the outcome can be favorable.

    • Reply June 15, 2019


      Wow, congrats on an amazing recovery! We’re so glad to hear that you’re doing well and able to get back to life as it was. It’s also wonderful that you’ve had such great support from family and friends, that can make such a huge difference. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Reply August 10, 2017


    I appreciate this article. As a nurse with many years experience, I can attest to the fact that CPR is very hard on the elderly and frequently results in broken ribs and damage to lungs. I try very hard to talk to all my patients about the importance of making end of life decisions in advance.

    • Reply August 10, 2017


      It’s wonderful that you’re sharing you knowledge with the families you work with! This is such an important topic and greater knowledge about the consequences of CPR could prevent unnecessary suffering for older adults.

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