The Reality of CPR for Seniors: Get the Facts

cpr for seniors

CPR is brutal, especially for 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


  • Reply June 3, 2021


    Hi daily care.

    I and my brothers have a big diction to make about C.P.R
    We want mum to live but not to suffer. Our mum is in a care home with Alzheimer’s.
    The doctor in the home has made the decision for us to do not resuscitate which I feel it’s wrong since my brother’s are the one who has the say on what they want for mum.
    I just feel that we still want mum hear and for the doctor to make that decision for us has made me feel that I want my mum to live a little bit longer. It’s not up to him it’s up to us. So upset about this.

    • Reply June 21, 2021


      The person who holds the Healthcare Power of Attorney is the one who has the legal right to make this decision. You may want to speak with the care home’s administrator since the doctor isn’t honoring your mother and your families wishes for end-of-life care. The doctor can make a recommendation, but the decision is up to the person who holds the Power of Attorney, typically a family member.

  • Reply April 21, 2021

    Janine Watts

    Thank you for the informative article on CPR. The negative effects on elderly persons should be more widely publicized & known, as the common assumption is that CPR is great for everyone.

    • Reply April 21, 2021


      You’re very welcome, so glad this article is helpful! Whether or not to have CPR is an important decision, so it’s essential to have all the facts.

      • Reply December 22, 2023


        My Dads heart stopped he had cpr he is 83 and i am so sad to see him suffering. With a tube down his throat for oxygen

        • Reply December 22, 2023


          We’re so sorry to hear about your Dad’s heath emergency 💔

  • Reply January 24, 2021

    Shirley A Ellis

    This is a very hard decision to make. My mom is 101 years of ages, but her health is not that great, congestive heart failure, kidney failure and Alzheimer. She is very frail and weak. I have told the medical field to go ahead with the CPR but now I am not sure. So confused at this moment.

    • Reply January 25, 2021


      We can certainly understand how tough a decision this is. It’s a very personal choice, based on what you think your mom would want. Whatever the outcome, you’re making the best choice you can in a difficult situation.

  • Reply January 15, 2021

    michele Carter

    I had to make this decision with my mother tonight. The physician had stated all the above cons to having this done. My mother is 80 and very frail. I wasn’t sure if mother and I made the right decision to not have CPR done. I had the weight of the work on me until I read the comments. I feel at ease now knowing what he said was true. If her heart stops I am now at peace knowing she will go with peace and not a horrific end that with all the trauma. Thank you everyone for sharing. I feel better about the decision knowing in my soul , I made the best for her and a hopefully painless end .

    • Reply January 16, 2021


      Thank you for sharing your and your mother’s story with us ❤️ This is such a difficult and personal decision to make. We’re so glad that this article and reader comments were able to provide a little peace.

  • 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 April 21, 2021

        Ken Thompson

        My experience is that vast odds with this article. My heart stopped and I had CPR. It was in no way traumatic, I was in no way badly affected and I’m very grateful for the intervention. I am 66 and I would want that type of intervention for my mother who is now 94.

        • Reply April 21, 2021


          So glad that you’re well and that the CPR didn’t do significant damage. Every person’s health and physical condition is different and the emergency situation will also be unique, so the outcomes would be difficult to predict.

          The only thing we can all do is understand the possible and likely outcomes, our own health situation, and our personal wishes. Having the facts helps each person make an informed decision.

          • September 26, 2021


            This last Friday night my mom, age 84 was transported to the hospital from her assisted living facility because of low blood pressure. While in the ER she arrested. Mom has a DNR order but the doctor didn’t know that when he started. Mom is now on a ventilator and being pumped full of drugs to help with pain and infection. She has multiple broken ribs. She already had a severe back injury stat caused her to be wheelchair bound. I feel angry that she is still alive(if that’s what you call it). She has been in pain for so long and just wants to rest. I feel so badly for her.

          • September 26, 2021


            We’re so sorry that happened to your mom 🙁 It’s terrible that they didn’t know that she had the DNR.

  • 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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