Welcome to My Blog

I have a new logo, and I’m pleased to say that the day I purchased it and printed it out, I was able to ask a client what he thought about it, and he immediately recognized it as a tree and made the “tree of life” connection. Yes, that’s the tree I’m talking about! My logo is a tree that also looks like a person who is embracing a community. I think this is particularly relevant to what I do because I work to help my clients put together a holistic plan for their future – one that is consistent with the values a person has lived by and which honors the relationships with family and community members. Holistic planning can also involve peacemaking. The tree of life connection is especially meaningful to me because it symbolizes the transitory nature of our lives and the relationships, in the context of certain unchanging constants. The tree of life symbolizes a simple message of unity, that we are all part of a community and it is represented in a number of different cultures, myths, faiths and traditions across time and geography. It is an important symbol for my practice philosophy because I seek to assist my clients in identifying ways they can maximize the support and connections they need from others during their lives and so they can transmit their legacy after they are gone.

I mention the Tree of Life specifically on my blog page because my blog is the place where the diverse but related interests will converge. We have never before had so many 80 and 90 year-olds on the face of the earth. What are the implications for law, ethics, medicine, philosophy? These are all appropriate aspects of identifying a strategy for clients because a sound plan must take into account the “ripple effect” of individual actions that relate to financial, emotional, medical and physical considerations that are often relevant in the legal context.


Deathbed Ethics, Proposition 106 and Remembering How to Die

Closed Shutters

Closed Shutters

We have forgotten how to die.  We have forgotten that it is death, as part of our life, which makes us human.  Death is just like the rest of our life – unpredictable and subject to constant change. That is what we have forgotten.  We have become obsessed with our identity and being “in control,” in such ways that support our limited notions of autonomy.  This is superficial, to say the least and I don’t think it has anything to do with preserving anyone’s human dignity.

In Proposition 106, physician assisted death (PAD) or physician assisted suicide is put forward as a “right” to be asserted by a limited and defined class of individuals suffering from a terminal illness who are not expected to live for more than six months.  But wait, this sounds like qualifications for a hospice script – doesn’t it?  Have people who are advancing the recognition of this “right to die” fully explored the parameters of hospice and palliative care?  I think many have not.  It is much simpler, much more straightforward and slogan-empowering to clamor for a right than it is to take a “wait and see” approach – which is what most of us end up doing anyway. Why do I bring up palliative and hospice care in this context? Because I think the need to advance any “right to die” here is superfluous to the already existing but not well-known by the public services of hospice and palliative care health professionals.

In my previous posts, I mentioned the 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Washington v. Glucksberg, 502 U.S. 702, 737 (1997) and I want to follow up just a bit on that decision and its wake.  I’m thinking particularly of Justice O’Connor’s concurrence, referring to pain management palliative and hospice care:

In sum, there is no need to address the question whether suffering patients have a constitutionally cognizable interest in obtaining relief from the suffering that they may experience in the last days of their lives. There is no dispute that dying patients in Washington and New York can obtain palliative care, even when doing so would hasten their deaths. The difficulty in defining terminal illness and the risk that a dying patient’s request for assistance in ending his or her life might not be truly voluntary justifies the prohibitions on assisted suicide we uphold here.

The “right to die” in terms of PAD would appear to be promoted at the expense of the prospect of any effective management of pain.  The further juxtaposition can be seen in these two articles by leading legal scholars: Robert Burt’s “The Supreme Court Speaks – Not Assisted Suicide but a Constitutional Right to Palliative Care,” in 337 New England Journal of Medicine 1234 (1997) and Erwin Chemerinsky’s “Washington v. Glucksberg Was Tragically Wrong,” in 106 Michigan Law Review 1501 (2008).

So why do I write another post about Prop 106? Because the “right to die” as it concerns a patient’s right to end their pain . . . is simply too misleading.  Terminal pain management, about which most people want to believe this proposed legislation concerns itself – is another matter separate from “the right to die.”  This is borne out by the Oregon statistics from 2015 which I referred to in my previous post.

Let’s set the record straight here.  The information collected from Oregon about those persons choosing to fill the prescription for the life ending medications did so based on their diminished enjoyment of life, their loss of autonomy, and their perceived loss of dignity. A surprisingly small number of people mentioned “inadequate pain control” as a reason to choose assisted death from a physician.  Why might this be that pain control factored in so small a number of responses? We don’t know because the statistics available don’t offer further information.  But I think it is not a stretch to conclude that most of those folks choosing to get a scrip filled for lethal medications already had their pain pretty well managed, thanks to hospice or palliative care.

The real reasons for these folks to get the medications was to manage the psychic pain of living at the end of their life, in which their terminal illness compromised their ability to live independently, autonomously and with the dignity with which they had previously known.  This is a qualitatively different kind of pain! This pain may be incidental to the “pain of dying” but it is most certainly a pain of living, living with the uncertainty of what challenges tomorrow will bring.  We have simply forgotten this important detail!

What kind of patient autonomy do we want to protect as a matter of law and public policy? I think we need to be clear about what this law would change and how it would work, and not to be dazzled by the shine of a new “right” that has little to do with the context – medical, legal, ethical or psychological – of how such a right would be exercised.  If this Prop 106 is really about saying it is okay to take one’s own life (I don’t even like saying “commit suicide” because it is fraught with moral implications that further perpetuate the underlying loss of the person’s survivors), then let’s be clear about that.  I believe that is the implicit underlying message, but few people are comfortable with looking much under the surface of the legislation and its long-term unintended implications.

We are talking about the pain of living a life without the independence and autonomy to which we had grown accustomed and the terminal disease or condition robs the patient of that dignity of autonomy.  I will be the first to state I am not equipped to decide for another when their terminal pain has reached such a level that palliative or hospice medications will not suffice to manage the pain.  But I think the pain we are talking about is not the physical pain, which palliative and hospice care providers have become experts in managing, no we are talking about the pain of living a life, the end of which is one “we have not chosen.”  It is implicitly stating – I do not want that challenge and I choose death instead.  Let’s be honest about that choice and our ability to choose it!

In some important respects, Prop 106 presents essentially a right to die versus a right to hope.  If we are in the midst of a terminal illness, rapidly advancing in its ravages of our bodies and our abilities to function independently, we are much less likely to give up hope if we feel supported, if we are not made to feel as if we are a burden on others.  Here physician assisted death resembles the choices underlying suicide as they vary in number among different cultures across that world.  Suicide has been characterized by Durkheim as related to sociocultural factors and in particular the integration of a person in family, economic, political and religious life.   I posit that we ought to be looking to each other for assistance, for hope, especially in the face of imminent death, and not be so eager to show the door to those of us who feel they have become a burden or simply want to “choose death.”

© Barbara E. Cashman 2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org

End of Life Options and Deathbed Ethics part 2

Italian Sculpture

Italian Sculpture


In last week’s post about Colorado’s Prop 106 – End of Life Options, I looked at the version of “death with dignity” as another theater for denying death.  Someone I spoke with a couple nights ago was puzzled when I made this comment as she thought that choosing one’s own demise couldn’t be, by definition, death denying.  Well yes, there is a difficulty with the terminology here as well as the language! But I am talking about the big picture here.

How do we define “deathbed” when it is someone who actively wants to die, as opposed to someone who may or is likely to die relatively soon, most likely as the result of a terminal disease?  Are the deathbed and our deathbed ethics defined by the person who will die or do we use some other standard to determine this?

  1. End of Life Options and Its Stated Goal of Allowing an End to Intractable Pain

Oregon has had a physician assisted death statute the longest of any state, since 1997.  The 2015 Oregon statistics are quite telling here. I think most people conclude that what we are talking about here is the ending of a terminally ill person’s intractable pain.  But wait a second, that reason is pretty low on the scale of what people in Oregon mentioned in 2015 to justify their choice of physician assisted death.  The top three reasons were: “less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable” (96%); “losing autonomy” (92%); and “loss of dignity” (75%).  Does this surprise anyone?  “inadequate pain control” was mentioned by 28.7% of people.  We are not talking about physical pain here, contrary to what most folks seem to believe.  People getting the lethal medications are saying that it is the pain of losing the life they once knew, as an autonomous individual.  This is one of the reasons why the Not Dead Yet disability community and many others get excited about this important detail –  because it is inherently a quality of life issue.

Besides, there is a problem here with this “physical pain” rationale . . . Why, if the question is intractable physical pain as touchstone, would we limit the relief allowed only to those suffering from a terminal illness.  Why exclude from physician assisted death those who face chronic, intractable and debilitating pain but are not terminally ill?  Dax Cowart’s story about his right to refuse treatment in this context is instructive.  Cowart wanted, demanded to die on many occasions, but wasn’t allowed to do so.

  1. The Relation Between the Exercise of the right to Die and the Risk of Coercion

Note that it is not possible for us to exercise our rights in a vacuum.

In the context of this asserted right, as identified at least within the parameters of Prop 106, how do we account for the basic human dignity inherent in our lives – in whichever level of capacity or incapacity, meaningfulness or meaningless we find ourselves?  I don’t think the asserted right addresses this at all.  I think here the asserted “right” is simply an uneasiness with our “diseasiness.”  Quality of life and human dignity – how do we calculate or assign value to our existence? If we focus on what we don’t have any longer (as many elders tend to do) – a level of autonomy previously enjoyed that is no longer, a loss of control over bodily functions, and a dependence on others for basic needs – then we assign a limited and diminished value to a particular type of our existence.

I have spoken with more than a few elders who have explicitly stated that they do not want to outlive their money or have mentioned other ways in which they do not want to be a burden on their children or others.  If the elder is old and frail, maybe appearing to be going downhill after a fall, what would there be to stop or slow a family member’s subtle coercion to simply give up?

Well, it turns out I could write many more posts on this topic because it really is about the quality of our humanity, not the right to die with a doctor’s assistance.  So, you’re wondering . . . what is the alternative?  In my first post I mentioned how Medicare, only since January of 2016, has been paying its doctors to have an end of life conversation with patients.  There are other important changes to medical care for elders as well as others with serious or chronic illness.  I am thinking of palliative care and hospice care – different types of medical care but with the common value and goal of treating the whole person, not just the medical problem which the patient presents.  Hospice care has, in addition to its provision of medical care, a focus on spiritual care as well as counseling – often done with social workers with the patient as well as their family members.

We must remember that death is not simply a “right”, it is a normal part of life.   Focusing on the quality of life is obviously challenging when there is terminal pain involved or a chronic illness that causes that pain.  In the context of Prop 106, death is treated as a right, to be exercised in order to vanquish that viatlity- and quality of life-robbing illness that would cause death its own time.

I think we should give our palliative and hospice care specialists just a bit more time and open our minds to more life-affirming options that are truly compassionate medical care of the whole person.   I liked what this article about palliative care from the NIH had to say:

A comprehensive psychosocial and spiritual assessment allows the team to lay a foundation for healthy patient and family adjustment, coping, and support. Skilled expert therapeutic communication through facilitated discussions is beneficial to maintaining and enhancing relationships, finding meaning in the dying process, and achieving a sense of control while confronting and preparing for death.

There are choices besides dying in a hospital, alone and in pain – or what Prop 106 offers.  Let’s not give up hope for ourselves just yet.  Let’s not make this failure of medicine’s ability to effectively treat our end of life conditions or intractable pain, a failure of our humanity!

©Barbara Cashman 2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org


End of Life Options and Deathbed Ethics – part 1 of 2

Springtime in Assisi

At a former client’s request, I am writing a bit more about the ballot initiative Proposition 106 on the November ballot for Coloradoans.  Read the text of the initiative here.  It was formulated as Prop 106 after two unsuccessful attempts to get a version of the Oregon statute through the Colorado legislature.  After the bill died in the spring of 2016, supporters made good on their threat to take it to the voters in a ballot initiative.

Why do I bring up “deathbed” ethics here? Because I think there is an important and a vital distinction between allowing for an easier death, a good death – which is the historical meaning of euthanasia, and the causing of death by hastening it with a life-ending prescription.  In our post-modern America, we have become estranged from death and dying.  Dying has come to be seen, as life has for so many elders, as the management of a medical problem.  This is recently changing as more people are able to die at home and with the wider familiarization with hospice and palliative care.  Most of us care about the quality of life and so, consequently, about the quality of a death or a dying process.  Throughout history, we humans have always tried to control the way in which we die.  But is dying an accomplishment or part of a life process?  How do we master death?  I am unsure of the answers to these two questions, but I can tell you that Prop 106 has one answer, to this question – that is to take one’s own life with life-ending medication, which proponents have historically termed “death with dignity.”

I find offensive the idea that the only “death with dignity” is by one’s own hand and within a time frame selected by the one choosing to end their life.  I think this is no mastery of death at all, but represents an even deeper form of denial, an escalation if you will, of the denial of our own mortality.  It’s as if we say to ourselves “I’ll show you death – I will choose you and not allow you to choose me!”  This reminds me of a line from a favorite children’s book – Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Together when the two friends (observing a hawk overhead) scream together “we are not afraid!”

We live in a death-denying culture and I see this Prop 106 as simply another means of denying death, but this step requires the endorsement of others on two levels: first, in the form of a change in the law to allow for assisted suicide or physician assisted death; and second, in the form of the fundamental change in the way doctors treat patients.

Americans love to discuss and debate the meaning of our rights and how our rights are best protected.  We tend to focus on individual rights in particular and sometimes we tend to forget that for each right there must me some relationship for its exercise, some context for it to be meaningful and substantive.  What if our focus on this asserted individual “right” is more akin to a coping mechanism (maybe a dissociative pattern?) in the face of suffering?  In this sense, Prop 106 represents a solution to a different problem, a philosophical problem of human existence and not the one described in the initiative.

  1. The Right to Die

The “right to die” is a misnomer for what this ballot initiative –– is about.  Suicide is no longer a crime in any U.S. state.  People already have a right to die as such (without another’s assistance) and people take their own lives every day. The right which the “end of Life Options” initiative concerns is the ability for a class of terminally ill persons to be able to get a prescription from their doctor (without criminal penalty being imposed on the medical provider) for life-ending drugs. Prop 106 refers to these as “medical aid-in-dying medication”, but I have difficulty calling them medication, because that would be for treatment, but this initiative includes the ending of a patient’s life as medical treatment.  Is this a big deal? Yes, I think so!   Colorado law currently provides that a person aiding another’s suicide is felony manslaughter (Colo. Rev. Stat.  18-3-104(B)).

This “right to die” which is Prop 106, is a right, the exercise of which, is premised upon the necessary involvement of another person (and institution) for its fulfillment.  If you are interested in reading further about this, you can take a look at the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1997 decision in Washington v. Glucksberg, in which it determined that the asserted liberty interest (under the Due Process Clause) had no place in our legal, medical or other traditions and to decide otherwise, would force the Court to “reverse centuries of legal doctrine and practice, and strike down the considered policy choice of almost every state.

  1. The State’s Stamp of Approval on the Medical Profession’s Ability to Prescribe Death-Causing Medications to Patients without Criminal Penalty

Whether we call this active euthanasia which is described in Prop 106 as a “right to die,” or a self-inflicted “mercy killing,” Prop 106 would change the most personal act of whether to end’s one’s own life into a a matter of policy, by forcing endorsement of voters and the medical community to institute a fundamental and historical change in the doctor-patient relationship.

Some patients would say that their right to receive life-ending medication should trump this historical relationship, but I find it incredibly inconsistent that, only since January 2016, Medicare has begun paying its doctors to have an end of life conversation with patients.  This was a big step and an important recognition from a system that has fully supported viewing people as medical problems and not as people!  Additionally, CMS (the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) recently issued has new regulations that enshrine “person centered care” for residents of long-term care facilities.  I think this forcing of a doctor’s hand to assist our own in choosing to take our own life is simply impatience with the problem of living – and our difficulties discerning the difference between what we recognize as living and as dying are the problem. Prop 106 is not the solution to either of those challenges.

I will continue this discussion next week when I delve further into the stated goals of some proponents and what this law allow and its implications for frail elders. . . .

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

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

denver elder law

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

denver elder law

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

The Colorado End of Life Options Act – On Our Ballot This November

Spring in Assissi

Spring in Assissi


Will Coloradans approve the ballot measure to allow physician assisted death in Colorado?

This is an update to previous posts about (unsuccessful) proposed legislation concerning physician-assisted death in Colorado and the ballot initiative which will be put in front of Colorado voters this November.  Click here to read the Colorado Secretary of State’s final version of the initiative.  Today’s post is a further conversation about this highly-charged topic.  I enjoyed reading this recent Denver Post piece by Jennifer Brown about use of language and terminology in this initiative and the wider debate.

The first observation is that I’m using the term I have previously employed – physician assisted death.  When I typed in the term to my search engine, what appeared in the results was “physician-assisted suicide” defined here as

The voluntary termination of one’s own life by administration of a lethal substance with the direct or indirect assistance of a physician. Physician-assisted suicide is the practice of providing a competent patient with a prescription for medication for the patient to use with the primary intention of ending his or her own life.

I use the term death because it is less inflammatory, but it is – by the very nature of the procedure – suicide.  Assisted death can incorporate both physician assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia, and I note this is important.  While we’re talking about terms to describe the life-ending process which is facilitated by a physician, let’s look at a few important terms to help keep the terminology straight.

Euthanasia comes from the Greek meaning “good death” and the Merriam Webster online dictionary defines it as:

 the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.

Within the definition of euthanasia are different types of euthanasia, including: voluntary, non-voluntary and involuntary.  Today I consider only voluntary euthanasia which consists of two kinds – active and passive.

Passive voluntary euthanasia: When someone executes a living will to direct that no life-sustaining procedures or artificial nutrition and hydration be offered in the event a person (known as the “declarant” for purposes of a living will) is determined to be unable to provide informed consent and suffers from a persistent vegetative state or terminal condition.  This practice (with important controls promulgated by state laws) was made legal by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Dept. of Health, 497 U.S. 261 (1990).  It was the first “right to die” case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, and discussed important aspects of self-determination, liberty interests and due process in the context of Cruzan’s family’s attempts to have Nancy Cruzan’s previously expressed wishes (orally expressed, not in writing) upheld.

Active voluntary euthanasia: This differs from the widely accepted passive form in that passive euthanasia involves a refusal or withholding of treatment and active euthanasia involves an intervention to give something –  a lethal prescription from a doctor – to provide the means to end a life.  Herein lies the distinction between refusal to provide or continue to provide treatment (recognized in our living wills) and the active choice of one’s own death, or suicide.

Can there be any middle ground here?  Perhaps.  If you consider the arguments for wider acceptance and use of hospice and palliative care – these focus on the treatment of the whole person to manage pain, a terminal condition or end of life medical care, and not just from the more mainstream exclusive perspective of medicine’s focus exclusively on a patient’s medical problems, often to the detriment of the patient’s quality of life.  So here is the question – if patients have access to good quality palliative and/or hospice care at the end of life, then is assisted death really necessary?  One way of looking at this is to consider that the rights-focused physician assisted death doesn’t adequately take into account the scope and range of palliative and hospice care which is presently available.

As we continue to age and live with (read: have our lives prolonged by) more drugs and medical devices, how we choose to remove those supports (like a pacemaker or similar devices) is part and parcel of our choice of living as much as it is how we choose for ourselves (and others) how we manage the end of our lives.  Here there is a distinction between the legal terrain (like a medical POA or a living will) and the medical terrain (a do not resuscitate is a medical order requiring a doctor), but this is longevity in the U.S. and most people don’t live their lives consciously regarding these distinctions.  Maybe it’s time to broaden the conversation . . .

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Guardianship and Self-Determination

View from Rocca Maggiore

View from Rocca Maggiore


In this post I’m examining the concept of self-determination in the post-adjudication context where a probate court has determined in a protective proceeding known as a guardianship (the concept also applies to conservatorship proceedings) that a protected person, now referred to as a “ward” is incapacitated and a guardian is appointed for that person.  In the guardianship context, after a person’s civil rights are essentially stripped away (but leaving intact the inalienable right to vote) in a court ruling, it might seem that a discussion of the self-determination rights of a ward would be a bit late.  This is most definitely not the case.

While the rights of a guardian over their ward are typically plenary and unlimited, this does not mean that a guardian can simply ride roughshod over the ward’s circumstances, personal preferences, desires and stated wishes.  There are important legal principles to consider in this context.  The Latin term “parens patriae” is the fundamental basis for guardianship law, the basis for a court to curtail an individual’s civil rights and name another to act on the person’s behalf.

Self-determination also factors into self-determination theory, which offers an explanation for human motivation in psychology.  This theory explains motivation in two different forms: autonomous or controlled.  This is relatively well-studied in the context of employment and employee motivation, but I couldn’t’ find many works on this theory in the elder protective proceedings setting.  Why wouldn’t it be as straightforward as the “four S’s” that motivate us as described in this Forbes article that we want to feel: successful, socially valued, smart and structured.  I realize this is a stretch when I am talking about someone with advanced dementia for example, but I think that many individuals who have trouble thinking could benefit from this approach to honor the autonomy such that it is.  Perhaps if we could think a bit more practically about how to apply the upper end of Maslow’s hierarchy: esteem, love and belonging. . .

Self-determination has a longer history in the disabilities rights legal context, and elder law and protective proceedings share many of the same principles.  Probably the most well-known is the doctrine of least restrictive alternative.  That term which borrows from the more broadly known “least restrictive environment” which is a common thread of much of the federal law of special education and relating to rights of the disabled.

So back to the self-determination of a ward.  What we are looking at is self-determination in a highly personalized relationship – that between guardian and ward.  The analogies offered above, from psychology and in the motivation context do offer some food for thought here, but I think the fiduciary relationship is still the most applicable baseline.  This means a subjective standard of looking at motivation and conflict in the guardian-ward relationship and how it plays out in the larger implications of the ward’s ongoing right to self-determination.  I think the incapacitated ward, like people with dementia in general, have much to teach those of us who are not afflicted with such trouble with thinking and managing our behavior.

After appointment, the guardian is accountable – to the ward, to interested persons (usually other family members) as well as to the court.  Under Colorado law, the guardian is a fiduciary and is held to a heightened standard of care.  The Colorado Bar Association has a couple helpful brochures available for guardians and for conservators.  It explains the fiduciary duties of a guardian to include the following: a fiduciary duty to the ward, meaning that you must always act in the best interest of and with undivided loyalty to the ward; make efforts to include the ward in all decisions and encourage self-sufficiency; avoid transactions that cause a conflict of interest; and make all decisions with care and prudence.   Acting in the best interests of the ward means also that a guardian is expected to consider the ward’s known and reasonable desires and personal values when making decisions on behalf of the ward, and must otherwise become and/or remain personally acquainted with the ward.

I think what the fiduciary duty covers generally here is an instruction to honor the ward’s dignity and rights (such that they are) to self-determination – to allow the ward a portion in exercising autonomy to an appropriate extent.  Here I bristle at the thought of our current obsession with the person’s safety, as if safety were the only thing that mattered in the care (or warehousing) of elders with dementia!  Safety is without doubt important, but it must be considered in context of quality of life and a person’s dignity.  I’m thinking of part of the Rumi poem “A Community of the Spirit,” on this point:

Why do you stay in prison
when the door is so wide open?

Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking.
Live in silence.

Flow down and down
in always widening rings of being.

Self-determination and autonomy – I’m wondering out loud whether it is possible to consider these important baseline values in a holistic context and not just as what the guardian owes the ward, or what the expectation of a court is relative to the guardian’s actions.  Self-determination is simply too important to not take seriously in the guardian-ward context.  I first wrote about this important right of self-determination of elders in the context of participation in mediation in an article I published in the March 2010 (volume 39, no. 3) issue of The Colorado Lawyer entitled “Elder Mediation Comes of Age in Colorado.”   Until the next post . . .

© Barbara E. Cashman 2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org







Guardianship of an Elder – Some Important Considerations

Delicate Flower

Delicate Flower

As the number of retirement age baby boomers continues to rise, we continue to grow our unprecedented proportion of old people in our population.  What does this mean for our future?  Well, lots of different things, but I’m focusing on an often neglected side-effect of our longevity: the likelihood of incapacity.

Capacity itself is a broad topic in the law.  In my area of practice – we typically follow the question whether someone has (or had) capacity with the focusing query – capacity to do what?  Execute a power of attorney, sign a will, direct one’s medical care?  Here’s a link to a document from the American Geriatrics Society about medical capacity that is an excellent Q&A on the topic of capacity in the medical decision-making context.

There are often many ways to enhance someone’s capacity if they are facing cognitive challenges.  Some of these enhancements can assist greatly where the deficit in capacity is of a more temporary nature, such as confusion.  Confusion can have a wide array of sources including alcohol or substance intoxication; poor heart or lung function (resulting in e.g., hypoxia); malnutrition or dehydration; blood sugar too low or too high; medications not managed effectively or withdrawal of medication; head injury or other bodily trauma; infection. Insomnia; and a number of other diseases and conditions.  I mention these to contrast them with a kind of capacity that is typically not temporary and likely to diminish further as the underlying disease progresses or as the condition worsens.  The kind of incapacity I am considering is not the temporary or reversible kind.

There are a number of medical conditions or diseases which can affect capacity as well.  For example, there are several types of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, alcoholic dementia, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia (Pick’s disease is one example) and Diffuse Lewy Body dementia which can occur with Parkinson’s disease.  For our purposes in Colorado, one relevant statutory reference is to C.R.S. 15-14-102(5), which concerns the definitions for protective proceedings:

“Incapacitated person” means an individual other than a minor, who is unable to effectively receive or evaluate information or both or make or communicate decisions to such an extent that the individual lacks the ability to satisfy essential requirements for physical health, safety, or self-care, even with appropriate and reasonably available technological assistance.

In the context of the medical conditions and diseases which cause dementia, a major goal of a capacity determination is to not just identify the disease, condition or injury which is the cause of the ongoing dementia (and which often progressively worsens over time), but to identify and promote the AIP’s self-determination and other rights to the extent possible.  Planning for the future can typically be accomplished even after a diagnosis or dementia such as Alzheimer’s.  The Alzheimer’s Association has a helpful brochure here.

While a person with dementia faces a host of challenges to their autonomy and self-management of activities of daily living (ADL), appointment of a guardian for an alleged incapacitated person need not necessarily be a self-fulfilling prophecy in that taking the AIP’s rights away makes them less competent.

Here is a link to the Colorado Judicial Branch’s website which contains helpful information about adult guardianship in Colorado and the probate court process known as “protective proceedings.”   The Guardianship Alliance of Colorado also has helpful resources, particularly pertaining to the expectations and duties of a guardian for an adult.  Finally, here’s a link to the 2016 Senior Law Handbook, published by the Colorado Bar Association.  Chapter 26 is devoted to guardianship of adults.

So what is the overall nature of an adult guardianship proceeding?  It is called a protective proceeding because its underlying aim is to protect the well-being of vulnerable adults.  This protection comes at a steep price however, the near complete stripping of civil rights of the AIP.  The ward will retain the right to vote, however.  So what is the task of a petitioner (the person seeking a guardianship) and what is the court’s role?  Within the context of protecting a vulnerable individual and based on all the cognitive and other deficits which prevent the person from functioning at an autonomous level, there are many losses sustained.  Amidst these losses, however, is the person’s ongoing right to self-determination.  Self-determination is an ancient right as far as the law goes, part of the inviolable rights which set apart humankind from other beings in the animal kingdom.

Self-determination is something not often discussed except in the most desperate of circumstances, hence its relevance to this discussion.  A basic precept of international human rights law (particularly in the post-colonial era), in our country’s history, it has been relevant to American Indian peoples, the disabled and other marginalized groups in our legal history and is enshrined in many countries’ constitutions.

In the future, I will be taking a further look at how the self-determination of a ward (after judicial determination of incapacity) can be supported by a guardian.

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Social Media Abuse of Elders




I recently came across this horrifying article published Monday in ProPublica, entitled “Federal Health Officials Seek to Stop Social Media Abuse of Nursing Home Residents.”  It seems that some staff members of nursing homes are publishing photos, audio and video recordings of some residents in the social media like Snapchat, Facebook or Instagram, or sent in text messages as multimedia attachment.  These pictures, audio and video files often depict elder residents of the facilities s in demeaning and humiliating ways so as to result in mental abuse.   The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has recently sent out a memorandum concerning this to the State Survey Directors.

Do the skilled nursing facilities have prohibitions against such intrusions in place?  Some evidently did not, but there can be little doubt that nearly all will have such protections in place soon in light of these disturbing developments.  Here’s an article about such violations in Ohio nursing facilities.

The CMS memo referred to above defines mental abuse as that abuse which:

[M]ay occur through either verbal or nonverbal conduct which causes or has the potential to cause the resident to experience humiliation, intimidation, fear, shame, agitation or degradation.  Examples of verbal or nonverbal conduct that can cause mental abuse include but are not limited to: nursing home staff taking photographs or recordings or residents that are demeaning or humiliating using any type of equipment (e.g., cameras, smart phone, and other electronic devices) and keeping or distributing them through multimedia messages or on social media networks.  Depending on what was photographed or recorded, physical and/or sexual abuse may also be identified.

ProPublica has been following this following these developments for many months and this article from December 21, 2015 details some of the incidents this mental and physical abuse of incapacitated elders perpetrate by the nursing home staff members.  In a case in New York where a nurse aide took photos of an incontinent resident’s genitals covered in fecal matter and shared them with another staff member on Snapchat, he was fired and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of willful violation  of health laws.  What I found particularly disturbing was the comment of one home’s administrator to ProPublica that “[t]echnology is a problem for us, for everybody, these days… The resident involved was not harmed but certainly it was a serious incident.”  Are incapacitated nursing home residents not entitled to any human dignity and to be free from such exploitation for someone’s entertainment?

One of the incidents described by ProPublica is from August 2015.  It occurred in a rural area of Colorado and involved a youth volunteer at a nursing home who took a selfie which showed a 108-year-old resident urinating.  The volunteer apparently shared the photo with her friends at school and the facility did not learn of the offending photo until months later.  The volunteer was not monitored by the facility but did report to the local police, and was later charged with invasion of privacy.

What is human dignity when it cannot be defended by an incapacitated elder? What is human dignity when it is not readily apparent or recognized in places where people are institutionalized for the paramount concern of their safety?

Dignity, as in the legal right, is not easily defined.  In fact, you would be hard pressed to find many references to it in our laws.  International law, specifically the international law of human rights, has much more to say about human dignity, but that is another blog post!

I will close with just a couple observations and questions. . . .

If humiliation is the opposite of being treated dignity and respect, is our system of laws really equipped to deal with this type of new frontier of the rights of incapacitated persons to be free from intrusions by others who humiliate them for sport or humor?

Is the dignity of or respect for elders a right in this context or is it overshadowed by our concerns for safety, and how does an incapacitated elder’s diminishing bailiwick of autonomy factor into this equation?

On this note, here is a link to an interesting article about the dignity of elders.  More to come on this very challenging topic.

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org