Successful Elderhood and A Good Death

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Mercury and his Caduceus

This is my second installment on the theme of successful elderhood and its obstacles.

In this post, I am revisiting the theme of “a good death.”  I first wrote about this in 2013 and recounted my experience with my father’s death at his home in 2010.  As I write this post, I am reminded that this theme is picking up more attention.

Perhaps I will start with the practical first – how does one, with her or his own planning or good fortune, as well as with the assistance (and sometimes this is a difficult term to use in this context) of loved ones or others – pull off a good death?

Let’s start with some numbers here.

Here are some recent (released 4/16) figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which shed light on older persons’ health and mortality.  Looking at the data in NCHS data brief No. 182, from January 2015 – it states:

From 2000 through 2010, the number of adults aged 85 and over in the United States rose 31%, from 4.2 million to 5.5 million, and in 2010, this age group represented almost 14% of the population aged 65 and over (1). It is estimated that by 2050, more than 21% of adults over age 65 will be aged 85 and over (2). Given this increase, adults aged 85 and over are likely to account for an increasing share of hospital utilization and costs in the coming years (3). 

 This is an interesting report – it offers a solid basis for my concern when I hear of one of my old (85+) clients being hospitalized!  When we look at hospital admissions for the old of the old (folks 85 and over), we see the top six causes (for 2010) for hospitalization as: congestive heart failure, pneumonia, urinary tract infection, septicemia, stroke, and fractured hip.  The likelihood of hospitalization for any type of injury for the 85 and over cohort was higher than the rate of either of the 65-74 or 75-84 groups.  The same group of 85 and over was also the least likely to be discharged to home and the most likely of the three groups to be discharged to a long-term care facility or to die in the hospital.  Of note here is the 6% figure for deaths, which is double that for the 65-74 group.

How many septuagenerians and octogenarians plan for or talk with others (from whom they will need support for their decisions and choices) about “a good death?”  Well, I haven’t seen any real statistics on that!  Keep in mind that Medicare recently (in January of 2016) started paying doctors for having an end-of-life consultation with their patients, so that seems like a good start. But there may be a glitch to that simplicity, as information used in a recent Forbes article shows that almost a third of doctors say that they don’t really have a formalized system of talking to patients about such matters and the same percentage (29%) they haven’t had any training on how to talk with patients and their families about such topics.

So with this rather bleak picture of the status quo before us, how is it that we can better come to grips with forging a better – more humane and dignified – path to death?  Where are the sources of this helpful information? Well, we can start by listening to the dying!  Keep in mind that dying isn’t simply a medical process, a failure of intervention or curative   measures – it is a physical process which is inevitable for every living being.  Palliative and hospice care offer  means toward that end in the medical context, but as we know there are often a number of emotional, legal, financial, psychological and cultural obstacles which can appear at the end of one’s life.

I liked this article from The Greater Good which offered the following points under the subtitle “how to die well:”

  1. Experience as little pain as possible;
  2. Recognize and resolve interpersonal conflicts (it lists Dr. Ira Byock’s Four Things here) to say  – I love you; thank you; I forgive you; and please forgive me;
  3. Satisfy any remaining wishes that are consistent with their present condition;
  4. Review their life to find meaning;
  5. Hand over control to a trusted person, someone committed to helping them have the kind of death they desire;
  6. Be protected from needless procedures that serve to only dehumanize and demean without much or any benefit; and
  7. Decide how social and how alert they want to be.

These seven means seem simple enough – but remember the big difference between simple and easy! Can any of us really know when death is near, when the dying part of our life or another’s is taking place?  If we start considering the possibility, then we see opportunities.  But these questions obviously don’t have definitive answers!  For all of our talk about health care self-determination, we – not just the individuals making the advance directives, but also upon those on whom the dying rely for assistance, have precious little experience with really thinking through the “what happens if” and the “what happens when” scenarios.

So I will close this post with two challenging questions –

How difficult will it be for someone over 85 to not be transported to a hospital for treatment at the end of a long and difficult illness  – particularly if the trip to the hospital is for the treatment of an injury that is not related to the terminal or chronic illness?

How difficult is it for us to adjust our thinking about these things as we age and become more frail and less able to withstand the medical interventions which were more likely to be restorative or curative in our younger years?

PS Don’t forget that Friday is Denver’s Senior Law Day! The morning event is scheduled for the PPA Event Center and you can buy your tickets here.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Colorado Aid in Dying – Coming to Your November Ballot?

 

Seated Chairs

Seated Chairs

This post is an update on the reincarnation of the proposed legislation in the Colorado End of Life Options in its new form as a ballot initiative known as Colorado Aid-in-Dying (Initiative #145).  In order to qualify for the November ballot, 98,492 valid signatures must be collected by August 8, 2016.  This may be a situation for which the ballot initiative was designed, where the public can exercise the power to create a new statute.  Colorado is one of a number of states – mostly west of the Mississippi- that allows initiated statutes and amendments. In case you’re wondering how to go about such an effort, The Colorado Secretary of State offers a guide!  The website ballotpedia lists the text of the initiative as the following:

Shall there be a change to the Colorado revised statutes to permit any mentally capable adult Colorado resident who has a medical prognosis of death by terminal illness within six months to receive a prescription from a willing licensed physician for medication that can be self-administered to bring about death; and in connection therewith, requiring two licensed physicians to confirm the medical prognosis, that the terminally-ill patient has received information about other care and treatment options, and that the patient is making a voluntary and informed decision in requesting the medication; requiring evaluation by a licensed mental health professional if either physician believes the patient may not be mentally capable; granting immunity from civil and criminal liability and professional discipline to any person who in good faith assists in providing access to or is present when a patient self-administers the medication; and establishing criminal penalties for persons who knowingly violate statutes relating to the request for the medication?

Yes, that is quite a sentence, isn’t it?! An Aurora pediatrician, Dr. Michelle Stanford, has filed a motion for rehearing with the Colorado State Title Setting Board, regarding the Title of Initiative #145, on the basis that the title and submission clause do not fairly express the true meaning and intent of the proposed state law.   You can read the opening brief before the Colorado Supreme Court here.   As to the form of this ballot initiative, keep in mind that Washington voters approved their state’s Death With Dignity Act by means of a statewide ballot initiative in a general election in November of 2008 (that was the second try at voter approval – the first attempt in 1991 was unsuccessful).

So – to the language of the initiative. . . .  We are back to the term “mentally capable” again, which is not otherwise found in Colorado law.  It is not clear to which part of the sentence the term “mentally capable” refers, which is troubling because there is no requirement of counseling in this initiative’s question, only for an evaluation in the event one of the physicians believes the patient may not be “mentally capable.”  This forms the basis for some troubling ambiguity.  Is it not capable to give informed consent to understand the life-ending nature of the prescription sought or – not capable due to some depression or other contributing mental health or other reason?  I think both the question and a clear answer matter greatly!

I will reiterate again my reservations about the dearth of reporting and other requirements which were lacking from the second version of the proposed legislation, which was killed in the legislature in spring of this year.  This question of physician assisted death is not at all likely to go away, and the debate could certainly benefit from less rhetoric and more practical considerations.  Keep in mind most states still have outright prohibitions on assisted death or suicide in either their statutes or based on case law. A handful of states (Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, West Virginia and North Carolina) have no specific basis in statute or case law and are ambiguous as to the legality of physician assisted death.  In 2009, the Montana Supreme Court in Baxter v. State of Montana, construed that state’s Terminally Ill Act in such a way as to allow physician assisted death.

With a goal of considering what is the dignity sought after in the physician assisted death initiative – a reprieve from intractable terminal pain and/or the dignity of choosing the time and circumstances of one’s demise?  Interestingly, a fair number of Oregonians and Washingtonians who availed themselves of their states physician-assisted death laws did not actually die from the lethal cocktail of medications.

I recently read a piece by the former Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, published in the June 12, 2016 Denver Post.  She is also the founder of The Conversation Project, an invaluable resource for people looking to make advance health care directives and other important arrangements regarding end-of-life care.  I refer many people to the Conversation Project website.

A re-evaluation of the way Americans die is already underway (thank goodness).  To the extent that the physician assisted death debate sheds light of the need for ALL ADULTS (read: anyone over 18 years of age) to think about and discuss their end of life wishes and communicate them to others in meaningful ways, then this debate is a productive one indeed.  For many adults that means not simply filling out some living will form at a senior center and then placing it in a safe deposit box or secret location where it will only be discovered after your death!

I still talk to folks who do not wish to have the end of life discussion because  . . .  well, it’s not a lot of fun, and besides – they don’t have a life threatening illness. . .  Based on my experience, the point when someone is in the throes of a diagnosis of or treatment of a life-threatening illness is the worst time to have that conversation.  Do it now!

© Barbara E. Cashman 2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Successful Elderhood and Its Obstacles

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A Sideways Approach

 

I’m working up a new series of posts on the many obstacles along the path of what I will call “successful elderhood.”  Being that I am such an optimist, you might be wondering why I’m using the more formidable sounding “obstacle” as opposed to a much friendlier sounding term like “challenge.”  The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines obstacle as:

Something that makes it difficult to do something; an object that you have to go around or over: something that blocks your path.

I use the term “successful elderhood” because I know it is a loaded one! How we talk about aging reflects our thinking about it and often also our feeling toward it.  Is it merely a decline, a forced slowing down with no redeemable benefits  – or is it a process that can be incorporated into the accumulation of wisdom – for the benefit of the individual as well as their community?  Instead of quoting words of Viktor Frankl’s wisdom, I’ll quote the late theologian J. Sidlow Baxter, who asked

What is the difference between an obstacle and an opportunity? Our attitude toward it. Every opportunity has a difficulty, and every difficulty has an opportunity.

Obstacle and opportunity? Well, there’s a good one! I will try and use this as a template for paying attention to the lenses through which we view aging and elderhood.  Of course I’m showing my bias already, just from using the term elderhood – I’m presuming there is a stage of human development that is capable of a fuller embrace of the unknown, of the mysteries of life, that can allow us to love the  lives we have to live, despite all the odds and opinions to the contrary.  This certainly is not an easy path, it is probably beyond the tee shirt slogan “getting old is not for sissies,” so I’ll quote the Sufi poet Rumi here:

A heartbreak shakes the yellow leaves from

The branch of the heart

So fresh leaves can go on growing . . .

Heartbreak pulls up the roots of the old happiness

So a new ecstasy can stroll in from beyond.

Heartbreak pulls up all withered, crooked roots

so no root can stay hidden.

Heartbreak may pull many things from the heart

But in return it will lavish kingdoms.

From: Andrew Harvey, The Return of the Mother (1995) at 156.

This idea of “successful elderhood” brought me back to a great book I (mostly) read several years ago – Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006: Random House).  Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, wrote this compelling book based on her many years of research on motivation and other important topics.  Much of the book readily applies and is aimed at motivating kids and young people toward building the successful trait of resilience, and away from the ossifying talent-obsessed entitlement way of thinking about who we are and how we operate in the world.  Her basic premise, reflected in the title “mindset”, distinguishes the fixed mindset from the growth mindset and her work shows the advantages and offers much practical advice about overcoming obstacles (instead of ignoring or denying them) with a growth mindset.  Feeling bad about one’s situation does not mean that one is not able to take constructive action.  See Mindset at 221-24.

Whether we look at an obstacle as an external setback or an internal one can make all the difference.  If we change the lens through which we look at aging, that all our hard-earned capabilities are being taken away from us by some external subjective and unpredictable process known as “aging” . . . .  then perhaps all we are really looking at are challenges, challenges to our thinking in some fixed and no longer relevant context, a sense of entitlement to what we have earned, which invites us to go beyond those “yellow leaves” into a new and unfamiliar territory.

I especially liked what Dweck wrote about the growth mindset and self-control: “Then there are the setbacks.  They [people in a growth mindset] know that setbacks will happen.  So instead of beating themselves up, they ask: ‘What can I learn from this?  What will I do next time when I’m in this situation?’  It’s a learning process – not a battle between the bad you and the good you.”  Id. at 235.

Dweck’s approach is refreshing and liberating and has much to offer in support of a developmental view of elderhood.  Here’s a TedxNorrkoping video in which Dr. Dweck talks about “the power of yet.”

I will close for now and look forward to my next post on Elderhood and The Economy of Gratitude.   I will tip my hat to the motivation provided by my summer reading list, which has included Robert Emmons’ Gratitude Works!, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and Katy Butler’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death.

Peace out!

©Barbara Cashman  2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org