Successful Elderhood, Autonomy and Driving

 

Columns of Support

Columns of Support

Last week I was driving from my office in Littleton to my dental appointment in southeast Denver. I took a familiar route, proceeding down the twists and turns of Monaco Parkway as I proceeded north of the Denver Tech Center. I’m not in the habit of recounting my driving experiences in these blog posts, but that afternoon was different because I called 911 while underway.  . . . There was an elderly driver who was driving in the parallel northbound lane alongside me for several blocks and then he moved over (negotiating the median in a sort of left turn) to the southbound side of the parkway as he proceeded northbound (at 30 mph or better). Luckily there were no cars for the four or so blocks he drove down the wrong side of the parkway, so a head-on collision was avoided.  He corrected himself and ended up driving behind me for several more blocks before turning off from Monaco Parkway. I didn’t think it was a drunk driver – I suspected it was a confused driver.  Just a couple days before a colleague from one of my listserves had asked me about what could be done regarding contacting someone about an elder he knows who has much difficulty operating a motor vehicle.   This is a tricky matter!  He forwarded me the email he received from the commander of the metro district for the Colorado State Patrol, which advised him to

Dial *CSP(277) from a cell phone if you observe dangerous driving behavior.  Of course, if the situation rises to the level of an emergency, you can always dial 911.  These situations are particularly difficult as pro-actively requiring a person to submit to a re-exam for their driving privilege can only be initiated by a family member or a physician.  Law enforcement can make the request but only after observing driving actions that would support the need.

I was reminded of the 14-year-old boy who was killed in southeast Denver by an 81-year-old driver with a history of driving problems.  This issue of when it is time to turn over the car keys is a difficult one for many elders as well as their family members because alternative transportation arrangements are required to get the elder to the grocery store, appointments and other places.  Many elders will not willingly give up their car keys and sadly, it often takes a crisis or an accident for the elder and family members to realize driving is no longer a safe option for the elder.

One of the other factors (besides requiring alternative transportation for a car-less elder) contributing to the difficulty of determining when driving is no longer safe is the challenge of getting a diagnosis of dementia.  This fear of such a diagnosis is shared by elder and family members – which is why I have referred to dementia as being “contagious” in the sense that we are all afraid of it – for the elder and for ourselves as family members.

So when do we decide and how do we decide, as individuals, families and communities – when we are no longer able to safely operate a motor vehicle?  Do we tenaciously cling to our badge of independence?  A Rilke quote comes to mind here:

The transformed speaks only to relinquishers.  All holders-on are stranglers.

From: Uncollected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Edward Snow, 1996.

What part of our identity as autonomous persons is our ability to be able to drive?  This concern with safety is a distinct one because it involves operating a car and all the dangers that poses to the drivers and others on the roads (or sidewalks).  Here is a recent article which addresses the challenges to driving a car which are faced by the growing number of persons diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.  How do we negotiate the changes in our lives and our ability to manage for ourselves as we age?  These questions do not have easy or even simple answers, but we must nonetheless grapple with them!  I think another poem is in order. . .. this one entitled “Sunset:”

Great carnal mountains crouching in the cloud

That marrieth the young earth with a ring,

Yet still its thoughts builds heavenward, whence spring

Wee villages of vapor, sunset-proud. —

And to the meanest door hastes one pure-browed

White-fingered star, a little, childish thing,

The busy needle of her light to bring,

And stitch, and stitch, upon the dead day’s shroud.

Poises the sun upon his west, a spark

Superlative,—and dives beneath the world;

From the day’s fillets Night shakes out her locks;

List! One pure trembling drop of cadence purled—

“Summer!”—a meek thrush whispers to the dark.

Hark! the cold ripple sneering on the rocks!

E. E. Cummings (or e.e. cummings, if you prefer)

I will write more on this topic soon.

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Obstacles to Successful Elderhood: Skilled Nursing Care

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Dome of Aspiration

 

I’m returning to the theme I introduced a couple months back about successful elderhood and its obstacles.  Today I’m looking at institutionalized care of American elders and in particular the costs versus care conundrum.

I recently came across two unrelated articles in the space of a single day and immediately saw a connection.  The first was this article from the New York Times, about the privatization of InnovAge, formerly a not-for-profit (which used to be known as Total Longterm Care) in the Denver area and the second article from the ABA Journal, about how the imposition of routine fines having little or no impact on deterring abuses at skilled nursing facilities.

Keep in mind that skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes) are some of the most regulated business in this country – regulated by both the feds through Medicare and Medicaid, as well as by state licensing and regulatory authorities.  Do these regulatory regimes lead to better outcomes?   The ABA Journal article would tend to weigh in on the “no” side of this answer. . .  That seems to be an open question, particularly in light of the shocking circumstances surrounding the death of a young mentally ill woman in SNF care – Letasha Mims, as described in the ABA Journal article above.

As an elder law attorney, I am aware of and often share the information collected by different state and local agencies about violations at nursing homes.  In case you’re wondering about Colorado nursing homes, here is a link to the CDPHE’s page about licensing and deficiencies.   Medicare has a handy tool to compare nursing homes here. You can enter a zip code and compare facilities quickly.

The story of Letasha Mims, however, makes me question the helpfulness and accuracy of that information collected by our regulatory agencies.   But the lingering question is a difficult one: when an elder or disabled person lives in a SNF which is a for-profit business, there is a nagging question about the adequacy of staffing at those facilities.    I am thinking of a recent book I came across – Elder Care Journey, (published in 2016 by SUNY Press) by Laura Katz Olson.  What Olson confronted in managing her elderly her mother’s care is something that faces each of us who has ever had to make the difficult choice of arranging for the care of a family member, like an elder parent, in a skilled nursing facility.

Olson writes eloquently about the personal journey of getting the best care for her frail mother, but what is most relevant for this discussion is the penultimate chapter of the book entitled “Peeling the Onion.”  In that chapter she looks at the system of care for elders including skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes).   She writes that the 2012 statistics indicate that sixty-nine percent of SNFs are for-profit organizations (mostly chains), but she reports that there is a recent trend toward private equity firms (like the one which is reported to have purchased InnovAge above) buying SNFs.  Olson notes that private equity firms have goals that include making quick profit so the business can be sold for a profit within five years; typically have protections against liability for substandard care which relate to the individual facility and not the chain which is the parent of the SNF; and private equity firms, unlike publicly traded companies, have little transparency about the inner workings of their assets, profits and ownership.  These important details don’t just seem to be at odds with providing adequate care, and they will likely contribute to a burgeoning number of substandard care.

Olson quotes at 152 (a 2001 study in the American Journal of Public Health) that “rates of severe deficiencies in investor-owned facilities were 40.5 percent higher than at nonprofit homes and 35.8 percent higher than at public homes.”  What will the numbers be for the present situation? This will likely be a topic of a later post. P Perhaps a relevant question for an adult child or anyone researching placement at a skilled nursing facility is the simple one of whether it is a for-profit facility and if it is, whether it is publicly-held or owned by a private equity firm.  Profit maximization for investors does not seem to be consistent with providing good care for our frail elders.

I focus on the SNF because of the institutionalized nature of such a facility and the relatively high level of medical care which is supposed to be provided.  And if you were hoping that Medicare was somehow an equalizer when it comes to insurance care for elders . . .  think again!  There is a growing shortage of doctors, particularly primary care physicians for elders, who take new Medicare patients.  For those elders in hospitals who are suffering from terminal conditions, here is a recent article from Health News, which addresses the shortage in hospitals of palliative and hospice care medical teams who are trained to discuss end-of-life issues, effectively manage patients’ pain and otherwise address the emotional and spiritual needs of those at the end of their lives.  There just isn’t enough money in providing palliative care under our Medicare program of incentivizing big intervention and the low-tech, high touch, human-fueled intervention of hospice and palliative care providers.  This reminds me of Atul Gawande’s observations in Being Mortal and Katy Butler’s book about her father and his health crises, Knocking on Heaven’s Door.

And what about Medicaid, that government long term care program that many people are curious about for their elder family members . . . Some studies have demonstrated worse outcomes for those Medicaid patients – whose doctors receive only a fraction of what other better insured patients receive.  Medicare patients didn’t seem to fare much better.  In case you’re wondering whether this divide continues, here’s an article from last month about worse outcomes for Medicare and Medicaid myocardial infarction patients.  We are spending money for these Medicare and Medicaid services, yet so many of the needs of the people receiving these services goes unmet . . .  what gives?!

Sorry, this post appears to be largely about obstacles, but perhaps they are placed before us so as to clarify what it is we need to fix for our loved ones and for ourselves.  Er, maybe this is an opportunity after all – but only if we make it one.  One thing is certain – it will not be an easy fix.

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Colorado End of Life Options – A Follow-Up

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Spring Orchid at DBG

 

I’m writing this as a follow-up to my last post, which elicited a heartfelt comment from a subscriber and a fruitful discussion on LinkedIn. . .

Voluntary euthanasia is when death is chosen by a person, when they are killed with their own expressed consent.  These types of requests and the consent needed for such must be clear.  To review a bit – passive euthanasia is when a person makes an advance directive in the form of a living will in which the person indicates the level of medical intervention – or lack thereof – in the event they are in an end-of-life scenario.  In the Colorado Medical Treatment Decision Act, Colo. Rev. Stat. 15-18-101 et seq., we distinguish between persistent vegetative state and terminal condition as the triggering circumstances for the application of the living will.  Persons dying according to the terms of their living will may direct in advance the withholding or withdrawal of certain medical interventions which would tend to prolong or sustain life. The Living Will is in essence a statement of wishes and the persons involved in providing for assisting with another’s grave medical condition must be aware of its existence and its contents.  Unfortunately, what sometimes happens is that an elder goes to a senior center or some other place to fill out a living will form, but the elder neglects to inform their family members they have done so.  No one knows of its existence or contents and so it is of no value.  This is why having “the conversation” – especially with one’s health care agent – is so valuable!

So, let’s get on with the discussion at hand.  Many of us have experience with active euthanasia in the form of “putting down” a beloved pet.  When my dear old dog Pepper was nearly paralyzed, we made the decision to euthanize her after considering the alternatives.  When two of my sons and I were with Pepper at the vet’s office (sitting on the floor with her, stroking her and telling her how much we loved her), she was injected with the drugs that would end her life.  The vet commented to me – “I wish we could do this for people.”

This is the paradox of passive and active euthanasia – that active euthanasia is more humane in that it hastens the death to alleviate the suffering, while passive euthanasia requires the withholding of the means of sustaining life – which means a person can go quickly if they are dependent on breathing support or. . . .  they will slip away slowly as they starve to death.

It occurs to me that many of us don’t think of the living will as a statement as to the form of euthanasia preference – or if there is no preference for such.  Is the living will a document that tells our loved ones to “let us go” or is it a document that gives the patient’s preference as a statement of self-determination, to be free from the unwanted interference of others?  Can it be both?

There are of course a wide variety of living will forms available.  While the documents are acceptable forms of stated preferences regarding euthanasia, different religious communities have their own preferred documents in compliance with their laws or traditions.  What is the distinction between letting someone die by not intervening and allowing a person to die by their own choice with the assistance of a doctor?  Is there really a bright line between the two?

Getting back to the “letting go” versus “self-determination” purposes of the living will, how do these play out in the context of active euthanasia or physician assisted death (as in the Colorado End-of-Life Options initiative)?  These tensions are even more pronounced in this context.  Where is the distinction between one’s not wanting to be a burden on loved ones and the subtle coercion that a gravely ill person may feel to “get on with” dying so that their loved ones can be liberated from the burdens of caring for the sick person?  I certainly am not suggesting answers.  What I am concerned about is that people seem to look for answers without regard to the question and what it entails or requires.

An exclusive focus on the self-determination rights of gravely ill people to be statutorily allowed to take their own lives – with the assistance of medical doctors – skews the discussion.  I liked Jennifer Ballentine’s article entitled “Law & Sausage: Physician Assisted Death and the Solution to Suffering.”  You can read it here.

The attraction is clear – to focus on the individual right to extend medical self-determination to include physician assisted death is a very American pastime!  We have a long tradition of championing and enshrining individual rights.  But in the context of active voluntary euthanasia, or end of life options, such exclusive focus myopically steers that discussion away from the critical context of the exercise of such a right [author’s disclaimer: I wear corrective lenses for correction of nearsightedness].  This right would certainly not exist in a vacuum.

I don’t think it is too much to consider a look at the bigger picture here and to identify in advance of our ballot choices this November the many unintended consequences which would flow from our choice.

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org