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.

 

Elder Abuse Detection: the Vital Role of the Physician

Flowers in Stone

Colorado physicians are mandatory reporters under the Colorado elder abuse statute.  See Colo. Rev. Stat. §18-6.5-108(1)(a) – (1)(b).

There is typically a lot of shame and guilt around abuse or exploitation with an elder victim, particularly when the abuse is perpetrated by an adult child or family member of the elder and the elder may be reluctant to take any protective action on their own.  The elder often suffers alone and in silence and will sometimes neglect themselves as a result.  Remember that we don’t really have any firm grasp on how rampant elder abuse or exploitation is in our country due a number of factors which include: the reluctance of a victim to self-report; the variety of state law definitions of what constitutes elder abuse; and a lack of any central clearinghouse for collection of state or federal data concerning reports of elder abuse (in its different aspects).

Financial exploitation, emotional or physical abuse tend to have serious and life-shortening health effects for an elder.  Remember that a 2009 JAMA article on Elder Self-Neglect and Abuse and Mortality Risk stated that elders who have been abused have a 300% higher risk of death compared to their age cohort of those who have not suffered such abuse.  This is most certainly a health issue for at-risk elders and this fact makes it that much more important that doctors, particularly ER (or ED) doctors be trained to recognize the signs of abuse or self-neglect resulting from mistreatment.

The ER doctor sees not just the immediate physical effects or injuries of a physical abuse or emotional abuse (spiking blood pressure, increasing risk of stroke or heart attack) but they also see the effects of depression and other factors which both contribute to an elder’s isolation and vulnerability and are the ongoing results and manifestations of the elder’s victimization.

A recent Kaiser Health news article recently highlighted findings from a study in New York on increasing ER doctors’ awareness of signs of elder abuse.  Some of the training is around going behind the explanation of the injuries – usually from a fall or some other accident, and asking questions which may uncover the abuse which caused the “accident” and its injuries.  We have a long way to go to train more ER doctors to be up and running mandatory reports.  Doctors have made huge strides in recognizing other “accidents” or injuries resulting from domestic violence and child abuse and we need to have the same strides made for the detection and reporting of elder abuse.  It’s time!  We need to connect the ER doctors more effectively with the agencies involved in assisting victims – adult protection services and law enforcement agencies.

Here is an informative pdf from Florida State University’s National Prevention Toolkit on Domestic Violence for Medical Professionals. You might think it has to do with domestic violence, but it is a document that looks at each of the fifty states’ laws on reporting elder physical abuse. It identifies the reporting law for elder abuse, identifies who are the mandatory reporters (especially physicians and other health care professional) and provides some detail concerning the applicable civil and criminal statutes.

Why is it important to empower doctors with this information? An article from 2015 on physician screening for elder abuse observed:

Healthcare workers, more specifically Emergency Department physicians, are in a unique position in which they can not only screen and detect elder abuse in their patients, but also can change the abusive situation and prevent its continuation.

A brief article on emergency department care (filed under elder abuse treatment and management) urges doctors to take the time needed to assess a suspicious situation, noting that elders do not usually self-report and observing there may be concerns around balancing autonomy and safety.  Referral to APS is noted as “vital to decrease morbidity.”

Physicians and other health care professionals can provide important, necessary and perhaps life-saving medical care to victims of elder abuse.  Here is a link to a webinar on the ElderJustice.gov site to a webinar entitled “How EMTs Can Help Identify and Report Elder Abuse.”  When there is widely available training of medical professionals about how to ask and what to ask an elder on this difficult topic and there is also familiarity with available reporting units (APS or law enforcement) and sources for service referrals to assist the elder, elders in our community will be better served and the community will have another valuable resource for reporting incidents of abuse.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Are There Alternatives to Guardianship for an Elder with Dementia?

Abacus of Glass Beads

I’m taking a look at the alternatives to unrestricted or plenary guardianship as a result of reading my latest issue of the ABA’s Bifocal magazine, in which the ABA’s House of Delegates adopted Resolution 113, urging states and other legislatures to amend guardianship statutes to consider less restrictive alternative to unrestricted or plenary guardianships of incapacitated adults and to require consideration of putting into place decision making supports that would allow a person the right to supported decision making as an alternative to (or reason for termination of) guardianship of an adult. I found the topic thought-provoking, particularly in light of a recently approved uniform law which contains many references to supported decision making.

In Colorado, an Incapacitated adult is defined our Probate Code at C.R.S. §15-14-102(5) as one

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.

The definition comes from the Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act, or CUGPPA in Colorado.  Below I’ll take a brief look at a continuum of less restrictive alternatives to implement in the making of decisions for persons who may be or become incapacitated (but not necessarily determined to be such by a probate court in protective proceedings).

First, I’ll note that each of these aspects of functional capacity and incapacity implicate a person’s rights to self-determination.  Self-determination is a broad topic. The principle of self-determination is prominently enshrined in Article I of the Charter of the United Nations.  It remains a concern under international law due to the fact that there are peoples who are not necessarily represented by the nation in which they find themselves.  For an adult who suffers from a progressive condition or disease process that results in cognitive impairment, there really isn’t such a stretch here to say that a person with dementia is at risk of being “colonized” or have their rights self-determination effectively erased by a legal determination of incapacity.  Here I’m talking about self-determination in the medical, and personal preferences context (concerning levels of care or autonomy, as well as choice of the setting in which one lives). The UN Convention of the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD), also speaks about supported decision making and you can read more about it here.

The medical or health care POA

I’m focusing on the medical POA here because Colorado’s protective proceeding for a person’s property is known as a conservatorship.  A conservatorship is often not necessary if a person has made effective POA naming an agent and the relationship is working and not otherwise under threat from an interloper.  But. . .  keep in mind that sometimes a non-agent family member or friend can take advantage of a person more easily if there is no court-imposed protection of the person’s property. Ah, there’s that ugly head of patriarchal protection (in the form of parens patriae, the power of the state to act as guardian for those who are unable to protect or care for themselves) again!

Bottom line is that, when people (sometimes known as “patients”) make their wishes known in advance to family members or others and empower another to decide for them as the person’s agent in a MDPOA , that empowerment alone can often lead to better outcomes.  But the fact remains that many of us choose not to choose to name an agent. So what’s next? In Colorado there are also proxy decision makers, which we might consider as “de facto” decision makers under applicable Colorado law.  So, that brings us to the next item. . .

Supported decision making – an intermediate ground . . .  or no man’s land?

This item is specifically included in the newly minted 2017 version of the Uniform Law Commission’s UGPPA, er UGCPAA (Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship and Other Protective Arrangements Act) at §101(13) where it is listed as one of the “less restrictive alternatives” to guardianship.   In the proposed UGCOPAA, supported decision making means “assistance from one or more persons of an individual’s choosing” (§102(13)); and is added to the end of the above stated definition of incapacity – to read “unable to effectively receive and evaluate information or make or communicate decisions, even with appropriate supportive services, technological assistance, or supported decision making” (§301(a)(1)(A)); is an appropriate consideration for a court visitor to include in the report (§304(d)(2)); for inclusion in the court’s order appointing a guardian (§310(a)(1)); as one of the rights retained by an otherwise incapacitated adult, to “be involved in health care decision making to the extent reasonably feasible. . .  (§311(a)(3)); and in other examples perhaps appropriate for a later blog post. . . .

What are some standards for supported decision making, which is related to “person centered” planning (now part of the Medicare rules, incidentally)?

This alternative sounds all well and good Barb, but what about those elders with dementia whose cognitive impairments are likely to worsen?  Is it realistic to devise a plan for this supported decision making?  After all, those folks are arguably in a situation different from developmentally disabled adults who may can live independently and working in the community, so long as there are community supports.  But I think this is a less restrictive alternative that is seriously underutilized due to the simple fact that people aren’t used to the idea and it is challenging to identify what it might entail and look like in an alternative to probate court protective proceedings or as part of a court’s order granting a limited or restricted guardianship.

Limited guardianship

This one is pretty self-explanatory.  Only certain identified matters are under the authority of a court-appointed guardian and the rest of the rights are reserved to or preserved in the “ward.”  The tricky part with this is an important detail – scarce judicial resources.  Most courts are not anxious to re-examine how supported decision making or a limited guardianship is working and re-tool it as needed.  Most courts have a difficult enough time simply monitoring those guardians!

Plenary or unrestricted guardianship

This is the norm in this country, regardless of lip service in statutes or case law concerning less restrictive alternatives.  But if we are to truly attempt to accomplish guardianship reform, we (courts, elder law attorneys, service providers and other resources) must work together to fashion a viable alternative to what has become the quick and dirty, default request in a guardianship proceeding involving an elder with dementia who may be in the future or already is “incapacitated.”  Stay tuned for more on this topic in the future.

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

New Proposed Federal Legislation to Combat Elder Abuse

Italian Ceiling

 

The Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act (S. 178), passed the U.S. Senate on August 1, 2017.  You can read the text of the bill here.  It was sponsored by a bipartisan group of Senators.  It has moved to the House of Representatives for their review.

This bill has several important provisions which would support more federal involvement in areas of elder abuse and financial exploitation reporting and prosecution.  Some of these include: training federal law enforcement (FBI) in elder abuse detection; coordinating data collection and establishing best practices for data collection and sharing among local, state and federal agencies involved in reporting and prosecuting elder abuse; enhancing the services available under the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime so as to specifically include those aged 60 or older; imposing an enhanced penalty for those convicted of the specifically defined telemarketing or email marketing fraud under the federal telemarketing fraud statute; and some efforts directed toward guardianship oversight and abuse prevention.  The only problem with all the great things that this proposed new law could do is that there is no money allocated for its proposed activities.  If the bill makes it through Congress and is passed into law, it will be in a situation similar to the 2010 Elder Justice Act, many substantive parts of which lack funding for its important work.

Notwithstanding the important fiscal detail, it is important legislation in several ways that can help coordinate the woefully inadequate means of reporting elder abuse.  The federal government could help to standardize the definitions of elder abuse for the purpose of getting a clearer picture of its prevalence for reporting purposes.  Every state has its own laws and definitions concerning its elder abuse  detection and reporting  standards and some of these vary wildly, making the standardization of reporting incidents of elder abuse that much more difficult.

The federal government’s involvement here could assist greatly in getting a better idea of just how prevalent are certain types of elder abuse.  At the present time, there are numerous difficulties figuring out these important details and this obviously can interfere with the allocation of resources needed to adequately respond to the worsening problem of elder abuse and exploitation.

The numbers concerning the incidence of elder abuse and exploitation are already sickening to consider and they appear to be rising.  It is of critical importance to have adequate support for prevention and prosecution to combat this.

The bill has been endorsed by the bipartisan Elder Justice Coalition,  the American Bar Association and  the Consumer’s Union, among other groups.

If you think this legislation sounds like a good idea to help elders and their loved ones, then by all means be sure to contact your U.S. Congress member and share your opinion about this important legislation!

Stay tuned for a blog post about another piece of proposed legislation which has been introduced in the U.S. House (H.R. 2505) and Senate (S. 1151) known as the Credit for Caring Act of 2017.

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Financial Empowerment for Elders

The Mighty Tiber

I’m privileged to be the invited speaker for Denver City Councilwoman Kendra Black’s “Senior Series” program tomorrow morning on the topic “Financial Empowerment: Planning for Longevity.”  I hope it will be a lively Q & A session with the participants!

So what is this empowerment anyway? Merriam Webster’s online defines empower as:

transitive verb: (1) to give official authority or legal power to; (2) enable; and (3) to promote the self-actualization or influence of.

Empowerment has at least a couple layers here, but for my purposes in educating and assisting elders who are living longer and in greater number than ever before, the most important aspect is the “give legal power to” in the first definition.

What I’m thinking of are documents like durable powers of attorney – both medical and general (financial) as well as other documents like a living will, a disposition of last remains and other similar documents.

Modern estate planning traverses two different “time zones” if you will – both the longevity scenario which covers the incapacity and disability side of life among the living, particularly for a long life, as well as the other side of life, or what happens after someone passes away.  Empowerment can and does often involve both of these time zones, but it is critical that the first time zone be discussed and planned for because the longer we live, the greater our chances of being incapacitated (for short or longer term periods).  Empowerment here means a conversation not just about the inevitable (death) but also about what one’s preferences are in the event one cannot speak or communicate on their own.  But it also means enlisting support from our loved ones and friends, as well as our community, in the event we need help, support or protection.

That is a big part of what I will be addressing tomorrow.  The more we talk about these important matters, the easier the conversation becomes.  Some of these topics, like elder abuse and financial exploitation by adult children or caregivers, are still quite difficult to talk about – but they are necessary conversations!

I’ll be sure to share in a later post about what some of the participants concerns were and what we discussed.  In the meantime, I hope to see some of you at the Eisenhower Recreation Center (4300 East Dartmouth Ave., Denver) tomorrow at 10 a.m.!

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

The Eclipse and the End of Life As We Know It

True Illusion

The eclipse that is set to occur on Monday, August 21, 2017 is a big deal. I have several friends who are traveling to get a better view of this event.  One couple I know is going to Fort Laramie, Wyoming and other friends to McCook, Nebraska.  Here’s a handy map that shows the strip of total eclipse. Based on my research, the last coast to coast eclipse in the US was ninety-nine years ago.  I remember seeing a partial eclipse in Denver almost thirty years ago.  It was pretty cool.  So, if you want to “prepare” for this eclipse, go to this link on the NASA website.  After all, it’s set to last for nearly three hours, reaching its maximum at 11:47 a.m. in my neck of the woods.

So what is it about the eclipse that would cause me to couple it with. . . the end of life?!  Well, here goes.

The word eclipse comes from the Greek ekleipsis, which means abandonment, cessation, failing, omission or flaw.

But remember that the eclipse merely obscures the sun from our sight – the moon appearing before the sun to block it does not extinguish the sun, but from our eyesight-based superficial understanding of what we think we see. . . . well, what’s the difference?

It’s a matter of vision, not eyesight.

Perhaps we eclipse-seekers are simply in search of awe, what some of our forebears would call miracles. Where should we search – in the familiar places or the unfamiliar, even uncomfortable ones? That’s hard to say. Few of us look for that awe in the mundane and everyday, but that is almost always where it seems to be found, discovered, seen.

This awe can cause a cognitive shift in our awareness, as in the “overview effect.” The term was first coined by Frank White in his 1987 book The Overview Effect — Space Exploration and Human Evolution and is described in this Wikipedia entry as

the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.

It strikes me that this eclipse, and its draw to our experience of life, is not unlike the awe at the end of life. The drawing and that movement is perhaps generated in different directions so to speak. We can “attend” the eclipse and experience it in ways we enjoy, but the end of our life demands a different kind of presence – one no less awe-some, one that we may think we are not quite ready to experience.

In his book Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life, Colin Ellard looks at places of awe.  At 154 of the book he looks at research into experiences of awe which focus on two essential aspects: a feeling of vastness and a sense of accommodation.  Vastness is the feeling of hugeness and grandeur, while accommodation describes our response to what created the feeling.  Ellard notes this often involves contradiction. An excellent article on awe (and its self-diminishing aspects) and prosocial behavior can be found here.

What is the inevitable here? We can easily face and even celebrate the inevitable when it is. . . . not too close and personal!  But what of dying and how can we recognize it as it approaches and obscures our sight ? Most of us don’t want to see death coming, so we turn away!

When people refuse to have the conversation about dying and its uncertain circumstances, to name or appoint someone to speak for them in the event they are unable to do so on their own, well – then the doctors will decide for you.  Here’s an interview with Dr. Jessica Zitter, ICU and palliative care doc and author of Extreme Measure, a book about the ethics of end of life medicine. Thanks for sharing that with me Georgine!

So maybe there is some preparing we can do for the eclipse(s) of our life. . . .   I think these Buddhist sayings (dhammas) sum up this essential changeable quality of our nature and that of the cosmos most succinctly:

I am of the nature to decay, I have not gone beyond decay.
I am of the nature to be diseased, I have not gone beyond disease.
I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond death.
All that is mine, dear and delightful, will change and vanish.

It’s a hard place to just be, to be with the uncertainty – will there be a sun that returns after the moon passes over it completely?

The eclipse of –  disease, misfortune, old age, fear of change, death.

Perhaps we can see this eclipse opportunity as an invitation, a path, to assist us in recalling how to revere, to feel deep respect or awe for something, for our relationship with the world and with each other.  In this respect, we remember reverence through nature – our nature – not outside, but inside each of us.

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Capacity, Incapacity and Vulnerability

Old boats on the Isle of Mull

This is the last post (for now at least) on the topic of capacity and incapacity. In my field of practice, I must be comfortable with making assessments of capacity concerning potential clients and I must also be familiar with the panoply of assessment tools used by the medical establishment (and psychologists who perform neuropsychological evaluations of capacity).

Capacity and incapacity are legal constructs, but they often arise within a medical context and are typically established (in the Colorado probate code as a requirement for a physician’s letter to support a petition for guardianship) with reference to medical evidence relating to a person’s cognitive capacities or mental status.  Interestingly, issues of medical capacity, or what is commonly referred to as “decisional capacity,” is something in which the court system is rarely involved.  So this relationship between legal and medical capacity is not much of a two way street!

In this post I’m looking at where these two notions of capacity and incapacity can meet.  Sometimes we hear that an elder is not capable of doing something any longer – for physical, cognitive, psychological or emotional reasons, and we often fail to consider the intersections of these parts of each of us as people.  We must depend on the integration of those capacities for our continued functioning.  Sometimes it can be very difficult to determine whether a difficulty is short lived or temporary or whether it is a harbinger of greater difficulties which lie ahead.  We each face these challenges alone, but we must rely on others in this stage of our lives, just as we have in earlier, higher functioning stages of our lives – but most of us  struggle mightily with our vulnerability.  The NIH website has a list of resources available for dementia caregivers available here.

There is an intersection between disability law and elder law in the approach to how we facilitate the assisted decision-making on behalf of another as well as the living arrangements for an incapacitated adult.  This is the term  ”least restrictive means” or also “least restrictive environment.”   The former term is distinguished from regulatory and constitutional law, in the probate incapacity context it is the language of the preference for limited guardianship over unlimited or plenary guardianship.  For the latter, we see the term in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which refers to inclusion and mainstreaming, which are of obvious relevance and value to elders who are losing or have lost capacity (ies).

The parallels between the rights of the disabled and the rights of incapacitated elders are numerous.  A large number of elder law attorneys practice in both fields of law because there are so many similarities.  Here’s a link to the Guardianship Alliance of Colorado’s website, which has great resources relating to protecting adults with disabilities.

This determination of incapacity sounds like a one-way street from which there is no turning back, but that is not the whole story.  I came across an interesting article by law professor Nina Kohn and Catheryn Ross about how a person previously stripped of “legal personhood” can regain their legal status.  You can read “Lawyers for Legal Ghosts: The Legality and Ethics of Representing Persons Subject to Guardianshiphere.  The introduction recounts the story of Jenny Hatch, a young woman with Down’s syndrome who was a ward of the state and who successfully challenged not only the terms and conditions of her guardianship, but also her right to make decisions for herself.

Elders in Colorado are part of a “protected class” of persons in our elder abuse statute.  Some of my colleagues take offense at the reference to age because they are close to that age (70) and still don’t want to think of themselves as “old” or in need of protection.   I suspect they don’t consider themselves “old” because they don’t have enough youngsters in close proximity. . . .

What does incapacity mean for a person once a probate court has determined the person incapacitated?

Incapacity determinations by probate courts generally strip a previously capacitated adult of nearly all of their civil rights.  In Colorado, wards (what a person who is named as Respondent in a guardianship petition is called after the court determines the person is incapacitated and in need of a guardian) can still exercise their right to vote.  So once a persons is stripped of those civil rights, a ward essentially ceases to exist in many ways or is legally dead.  This is one aspect of vulnerability.

If you find this patently offensive, please consider the historical common law rules of marriage and property which were “imported” into North America by the colonists.  Hey, didn’t we recently celebrate our independence on the Fourth of July a month ago?! These “coverture laws” basically reduced the legal status of an unmarried adult (otherwise capacitated) woman from an adult to the legal status of an infant once she was married.  These coverture laws pertained to a married woman’s legal rights to own property, to sign contracts, make a will and many other useful matters.  A married woman was otherwise legally incapacitated, but she could seek relief from a court of equity.  Connecticut was one of the first states to establish the property rights of married women.  Back in those early days, the courts of law were separate from the courts of equity, the latter were often referred to as chancery courts.  Those courts were merged with courts of law in many court systems but still exist as separate courts in states like Delaware.  In Colorado’s system of “combined courts” a court sitting in probate is both a court of law (employing the statutory probate code as well as case law) and a court of equity.  Equity is specifically referred to in our probate code, but the two concepts are still legally distinguished from each other because they are different sources of law and the remedies it affords parties.

A ward can regain his or her legal status of personhood – but it can be daunting.  In Colorado, there is a special form for that.   A psychologist I know recently contacted me about getting this form and providing a supporting letter for their client – here is the form from the state judicial website JDF 852.  If imposition of a guardianship over a ward is legal death, then termination of the guardianship based on a restoration (or re-evaluation) of capacity is akin to resurrection.  I won’t go into the gnarly details about the attorney’s ethical rules of representing wards seeking termination of their guardianships, but the Kohn article above is an excellent overview of how attorneys can overcome some of the challenges inherent in our ethical rules to assist those persons in getting their legal personhood or at least some of their rights restored.  Attorneys need to assist these wards to protect fundamental rights.

That’s all for now….

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Denver Senior Law Day is Tomorrow!

Venetian Shop Window

Yep, Denver’s Senior Law Day is Saturday, July 29, 2017 at the PPA Event Center, 2105 Decatur Street, Denver, CO 80211.  You can register by emailing SLD@DenverProbateLaw.com or by calling 303.757.4342.  The cost is $10 and you get to hear the speakers, eat snacks and take home a copy of the 2017 Senior Law Handbook!

The opening presentation starts at 8:15 a.m., and features Maro Casparian, Director of Consumer Protection at the Denver District Attorney’s office, as well as other attorneys who will present on a number of elder law and independent living topics.

I will be co-presenting with my esteemed colleague M. Carl Glatstein from 11:15 a.m. – 12:00 on the topic of Advance Directives, the End of Life Options Act and Guardianship.  That’s quite the trifecta if you ask me! In particular I will be speaking about the End of Life Options (EoLOA) Act and will also have a bit to say about how the new law meshes with advance directives (like medical powers of attorney and living wills) as well as guardianship proceedings.

That’s all for this post!

When the Decedent Was a Hoarder

Tightrope

What is hoarding? I like this simple definition from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Hoarding is the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value. The behavior usually has deleterious effects—emotional, physical, social, financial, and even legal—for a hoarder and family members.

Hoarding is “officially” a disorder, meaning it was reclassified as such in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) in 2013.  Prior to its recent “promotion” to a disorder, it was considered an aspect of obsessive-compulsive disorder, so many folks who suffer from OCD (or OCPD) are also hoarders. Hoarding has also been linked to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression. Sometimes hoarding may be associated with an eating disorder like pica (eating non-food materials), Prader-Willi syndrome (a genetic disorder), psychosis, or dementia.

Hoarding for elders can be indicative of depression and/or anxiety and for those elders who may have been “pack rats” in younger years, the compulsive habit can worsen in later life.  Here’s a link to a University of California at San Francisco study that looks at elders’ hoarding as a health concern.  That study concludes that hoarding in elders often seems to worsen and becomes more problematic, but for reasons that remain unclear.

How does hoarding impact one’s life? There seems to be, to a certain extent, an inverse relationship of stuff hoarded to quality of life. The more stuff clutters a home, the unhealthier and more dangerous can be the living conditions. Shame, fear of judgment, distrust of others being allowed in to the hoarder’s living space can contribute to the hoarder’s sense of isolation.

It seems straightforward that an elder who has a dwelling place crammed full of junk is much less likely to allow caregivers into the home or others who might able to otherwise assist an elder with managing the challenges of independent living.

What can be done to help a hoarder while they are still alive?  The answer to that depends on the type of hoarding behavior as the intervention must be tailored to it.  And yes, in case you’re wondering, there is a Hoarders Anonymous, but my antivirus software won’t let me visit their website. . ..

So, this post is about hoarding in the estate context – what does that mean?

It means that the job of identifying the decedent’s assets can be difficult, at best.  Finding relevant information can be extremely challenging or impossible due to the sheer volume of papers collected by the deceased hoarder.  Many years ago, I represented the personal representative of an estate of someone who was a hoarder.  The decedent had died in a skilled nursing facility, but inside her home remained dozens of filing cabinets as well as many boxes of papers.  When I informed the personal representative about some documentation I would need, she informed me that she was fairly certain that the papers I needed were kept in the home, but it would take several weeks to go through those storage places to try and locate them.

What if the deceased was an “organized” hoarder and kept only certain types of items?

Well, that might not be so bad, but I haven’t seen that one yet.  In my experience, there are few “selective” hoarders.  I think that has to do with the fine line between collecting and hoarding!

And if the deceased was an indiscriminate or disorganized hoarder? Well, I don’t think there’s a patron saint of the chronically disorganized who happen to be hoarders – but maybe there should be.  You might recall that Dante’s Inferno, in the fourth circle (of hell) to be precise, identifies the twin opposite behaviors of those hoarders and wasters (or prodigals).  That circle is all about greed as the Fourth Circle of Hell is guarded by Pluto, the Greco-Roman god of wealth:

Here, too, I saw a nation of lost souls,
far more than were above: they strained their chests
against enormous weights, and with mad howls
rolled them at one another. Then in haste
they rolled them back, one party shouting out:
“Why do you hoard?” and the other: “Why do you waste?”

Canto VII, lines 25–30, Ciardi translation.

So, it is apparent that the proliferation of stuff and its unceasing accumulation has obvious negative effects on one’s relationships with others and the outside world in general, but. . .

What can we do about detecting the causes of hoarding and helping a hoarder?

It’s a fine line indeed between “collecting” and “hoarding.”  That Depression-era mindset of scarcity, coupled with distrust (anxiety) about the future – the origin of one’s next meal, etc., can contribute mightily to a worsening of an already latent propensity to collect.  Here’s an article about that topic.

And if you think there isn’t an opposite extreme that people can engage in (see Dante’s reference to the “wasters” above), here’s an article about compulsive decluttering.  The root of the problem may be the link between either type of activity and its origin with obsessive thoughts.

In short, there are ways to help a hoarder – and in particular to avoid making the person (not their affliction) a spectacle of ridicule.  If this sounds like self-interest for the family members of a hoarder, as in those persons who will be responsible for going through the hoarder’s possessions – well it certainly is in their interest to help!

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Capacity and Incapacity in Context

Maigue Swan

 

Capacity is not some dusty old legal concept! In this post I revisit some implications encroaching incapacity or. . .  the “dark side” of our longevity.

The issue of capacity basically concerns judgement – the ability to reflect on and consider decisions required for daily living.  When one lacks that capacity (or is deprived of it) the validity of some actions taken or decisions made – which have legal implications – can be called into question.  This capacity discussion is likely to become more commonplace as more baby boomers move into retirement years and greater longevity…

Here’s a definition of capacity referring to Black’s Law Dictionary:

Legal capacity is the attribute of a person who can acquire new rights, or transfer rights, or assume duties, according to the mere dictates of his own will, as manifested in juristic acts, without any restraint or hindrance arising from his status or legal condition. Ability; qualification; legal power or right. Applied in this sense to the attribute of persons (natural or artificial) growing out of their status or juristic condition, which enables them to perform civil acts; as capacity to hold lands, capacity to devise, etc.

Capacity includes the ability to behave rationally and exercise one’s own judgment (for better or worse).  Certain matters which typically adversely impact one’s otherwise presumably intact capacity include: mental disorder, developmental disability, intoxication, injury affecting one’s cognitive abilities, or the course of a disease process.

Reference to judgement capacity (or the ability to process information) is a legal notion often coupled with or inclusive of a functional (objective) capacity assessment.  This is because so many of our human “doings” can require distinguishing (as our law does) between when we can manage and when we can’t.  The term “capacity” by nature refers to an ability.  I won’t go into any discussion about the nuances and historical underpinnings in the law relating to capacity as distinguished from competence.  If you want to read further on that topic, check out this entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on decision-making capacity.

So – how do we move from being presumed to have capacity to being legally incapacitated?

Where an adult has diminished or diminishing capacity, the law makes reference here to the “least restrictive means,” a concept borrowed from disability law.  For Colorado adults who are determined by a court to be incapacitated, there is a finding by the court that “the ward is an incapacitated person and the ward’s needs cannot be met by less restrictive means, including the use of appropriate and reasonably available technological assistance.”  See JDF 848, Order Appointing Guardian for Adult.

Because my practice focuses on elder law and probate, most of the petitioners whom I represent file petitions for guardianship (or conservatorship) concerning elders who have “slipped” in their capacities to manage for themselves, meaning the individual no longer has sufficient capacity to manage their affairs or make important decisions on their own.  Many of these elders are at risk of financial exploitation as a result.  I have also represented petitioners who are often parents of developmentally disabled young adults.  The distinctions among them, as for elders, are varied and numerous.  Suffice it to say that sometimes, for younger adults, it may be easier to establish grounds for a limited – as distinguished from the much more commonplace unlimited guardianship.  In the former there can be specific references to supports to help facilitate an adult’s capacity(ies).  Unfortunately, limited guardianships remain rare birds for a number of different reasons.

  Capacity in Daily Living

To bring this discussion back to the practical level, I not that one’s capacity to “live independently” or perform the activities of daily living (ADLs) are often part of the incapacity picture as well, but this is generally due to a concern for an elder’s self-neglect.  With regard to an elder who is named as a respondent in a petition for guardianship, the elder’s physical capacity or incapacity is generally irrelevant in determining incapacity unless it substantially affects his or her ability to make or communicate important decisions regarding his or her person, family, property, or results in self-neglect.  Physical impairments alone are often of limited import in the guardianship context, as evidenced by reference in Colorado law assistive devices and technologies and the preference for least restrictive means, but in making the determination of incapacity, reference is made (as stated above in JDF 848)  to those assistive technologies.

Another context for elders and capacity which is receiving more attention is the issue of consent for sexual relations.  I would imagine that the free-loving baby boomers will test their adult children’s tolerance and demand that more attention be paid to this aspect of living in a communal or institutionalized setting. Read a recent study about the generation gap in attitudes and practices of extramarital sex here.  A couple years back I wrote a blogpost on this topic and also about a husband in Iowa who was prosecuted for allegedly sexually abusing his demented wife.

Suffice it to say that this debate is ongoing, particularly as more institutions look to provide more person-centered care for residents who still enjoy physical intimacy.  Some of these folks have dementia or other cognitive impairments which can affect their ability to consent.  Do not underestimate the “eeewww” factor of many of these folks’ adult children who would rather not be informed of mom’s recently contracted STD or consider that an elder parent is sexually active!

We must remember, even when an adult is determined to be incapacitated for purposes of imposing a guardianship, what can still remain intact is that person’s capacity to express a preference as to the person who will serve as guardian.  In In re Estate of Runyon, 343 p.3d 1072, 1077 (Colo.App.Div.4 2014), the court held that

a finding that the respondent is an “incapacitated person” within the terms of the statute does not necessarily mean that the respondent lacks sufficient capacity to express a preference as to a guardian or conservator.   Neither the definition of incapacitated person nor the criteria for appointment of a conservator automatically exclude the ability to make a rational choice as to the selection of a guardian or conservator. Therefore, an incapacitated person may “still be able to express an intelligent view as to his choice of guardian, which view is entitled to consideration by the court. (Citations omitted)

That’s all for now and thanks for reading!

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Capacity and Incapacity Considered

Swirling

As a growing portion of our population continues to age, we are more frequently forced to confront the question of capacity.

What is capacity and why should we care? 

As we continue to enjoy unprecedented longevity, we face greater likelihood of incapacity in our future.  Sometimes this incapacity is short-lived or temporary but for many of us, particularly for elders, it can become an issue that plays out over time and can result in a permanent incapacity.  There are very few “bright lines” to define what is capacity and what constitutes incapacity generally, but there are many useful contextual and functional definitions of capacity to assist us in this effort.

I believe that the more we can learn about how these capacities and incapacities present themselves in the context of our daily lives, the better equipped we can become to help detect and prevent elder exploitation and abuse.  This post is about three particular types of capacity along the capacity continuum.  I use the term “continuum” because it is easy for many of us to think (or rather, wish to believe) that this capacity question is relatively straightforward.  It is not!  Like so many other aspects of human doing and human being, it can get quite complicated.

I’ll look at three familiar types of capacity here to put the question in context.

  1. Capacity to Make Medical Decisions

These medical Informed consent issues can include a range of capacities relating to what a patient is being asked to do – there is a range from the “mundane” question of whether the patient give informed consent to medical treatment or to decline such treatment; if the patient wishes to name a health care agent to make decisions for them in the event of their incapacity; and what about the capacity to make end-of-life wishes known with a living will?  Here the functional elements of these capacities can be broken down into four basic parts:

(a) To express a choice: The standard of expressing a choice refers to patients who are seen to lack capacity because they cannot communicate a treatment choice, or vacillate to such an extent in their choice that it is seen to reflect a decisional impairment;

(b) To exhibit understanding: The standard of understanding refers to the ability to comprehend diagnostic and treatment related information and has been recognized in many states as fundamental to capacity.

(c) To appreciate the implications of a particular choice or course of treatment. This aspect capacity has been described as the ability to relate treatment information to one’s personal situation. The standard of appreciation can reflect the patient’s ability to anticipate or infer the possible benefits of treatment, as well as to accept or believe a diagnosis.

(d) To rationally process information. This reasoning aspect of capacity involves the ability to recognize and offer rational explanations or to process information in a logically or rationally consistent manner.

Each of these aspects of medical capacity are interwoven into the ongoing conversation of one’s medical treatment and are of course highly subjective in many ways due to the individual patient’s own preferences or style of communication.

  1. Capacity to Drive an Automobile

This one is big for us Americans who don’t have so many public transportation options! The ability to drive is often one of the last things to go because it can in some ways restrict an elder’s ability to go places on their own schedule.  The AARP has an online defensive driving course and AAA has resources for getting evaluations of one’s driving skills as well as clinical assessments, but the “official” Colorado program is the Drive Smart program – click here for more information about it.  Under Colorado law, doctors (and optometrists) can provide medical opinions to the DMV concerning a patient’s medical condition and the patient’s physical or mental ability to safely operate a vehicle.  For more information about when an examination is required, here’s a link to a power point about it from the Colorado Coalition for Elder Rights and Abuse Prevention.

  1. Capacity to Make a Will

As an estate planning and elder law attorney, I meet with prospective clients and must make capacity determinations as a matter of course.  The ABA has a handy guide for lawyers and psychologists concerning assessment of a person’s capacity.  It is available here.  In order for an attorney to represent a client, an attorney must first establish that the potential client has the capacity to hire the attorney as well as direct the activities of the attorney.  We have a special rule of professional conduct which applies to clients with diminished capacity.

Historically, this testamentary capacity is at the lowest level along the capacity continuum.  In Colorado, the law is a bit less clear since the Breeden case, but  many states still recognize testamentary capacity as a separate and special category.  The Colorado probate code allows for a protected person (a person under a conservatorship) to make a will through the conservator. See Colo. Rev. Stat. §15-14-411.

One of the aspects of this low level of capacity required to exercise our testamentary freedom is that a will can be subject to challenge under some circumstances.  The person’s ability to make a will, or their testamentary capacity, can be the subject of a lawsuit known as a will contest.  Challenges to testamentary capacity often revolve around “undue influence,” in which a person challenges the will (and sometimes nontestamentary transfers as in the recent Colorado Appeals Court decision in Estate of Owens v. Dominguez).  Undue influence depends on many situational factors but generally can require a showing by the one challenging the will that: a person standing to benefit from the new will was in a confidential relationship with the testator (person making the will); that the person received a substantial benefit; from the testator who was suffering some mental, social or psychological impairment which compromised the testator’s mental capacity or independent thinking.

To conclude this post, if we think of capacity not just as a concept but as grounded in a particular context – as illustrated by the examination of capacity to perform a particular task, we can go much further in our examination of how much capacity is required and whether the requisite capacity is lacking.  From this contextual basis, we can then take a look at what type of assistance to “facilitate capacity” is appropriate and what kind of “assistance” is actually interference indicative of improper influence, exploitation or abuse.  I’ll write more on this topic this summer.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org