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, TV CPR is quick, painless, and almost always works.

But in reality, CPR is nothing like what’s shown on TV and survival rates are low. Before making a choice about CPR, older adults need to know the risks, benefits, and their chance of recovery.

We explain how CPR works, special risks for older adults, the likelihood 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, including: 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.

Older adults 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 quality of life.

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


CPR survival rates are low among seniors

Research suggests that 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 difficult for seniors with existing health conditions.


Seniors need 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 essential to first understand the facts and realistic outcomes.

In a study, when older adults over 85 years old were made aware of their likelihood to survive, 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 standard hospital and EMT protocol. If your older adult decides not to have CPR, they must have the doctor fill out a DNR or POLST form. They can change their mind at any time and update the forms as necessary.


Recommended for you:
How to Talk About End-of-Life with Seniors
What is a DNR and Why Would Seniors Need One?
Which End-of-Life Form Is Needed? POLST vs DNR


By DailyCaring Editorial Team
Image: Larry Mulvehill


  • 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.

Leave a Reply