The Dreaded “O” Word and Aging Into Wisdom

Old

 

I recently attended an educational lunch program put on by a financial advisor at a restaurant downtown.  It was geared to attorneys and their retirement planning needs. Most of us in attendance were “old enough” to be planning for retirement already and we had a number of questions answered.  A latecomer to the program arrived after we had finished our lunch.  He proceeded to ask our host a question about a “hypothetical 75 year old” but I suspected this colleague’s age to be well in excess of 80 years.  What really struck me however, was his use of the expression “O word” as if to acknowledge some common implied cultural unwillingness to use the term “old” as if it were a pejorative term.  I was both puzzled and troubled by this use of the term which I had never heard before, let alone from the mouth of an octogenarian!

So maybe there’s more than a few of us who simply refuse to accept this aging thing that we do, but I insist that there is a bright future for wisdom in elderhood. . . Here’s a link to a New York Times article  from 2014 about the science (from a psychological perspective) of “older and wiser” and  a short article from last month in Psychology Today entitled “Are Older People Wiser?”

Wisdom is one of the very few positive stereotypes of elderhood, but it’s of course not necessarily true.  A passive aging focused on the denial of age and eventual death does not lead to a ripeness of wisdom in one’s elder years. The jury is still out on this “older and wiser” issue, but while elders’ brains generally slow down, an elder’s experience and knowledge can make up for the shortcomings in processing speed and distractibility.  But getting to elderhood requires one to accept and even embrace our aging, learn from experience and to grow one’s knowledge along the way.  If we’re busily engaged with denying our aging, resenting that we’re “not who we used to be,” then that wisdom piece will remain elusive because we are failing to come to terms with a most basic premise of this life: the length of a life is uncertain and all we truly have is the present.

So, what is wisdom?  I liked these two definitions found at the Collins dictionary:

Wisdom is the ability to use your experience and knowledge in order to make sensible decisions or judgments; and in American

the quality of being wise; power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action, based on knowledge, experience, understanding, etc.; good judgment; sagacity

There is also the wisdom tradition, which is synonymous with Perennialism, defined in Wikipedia as “the idea that there is a perennial or mystic inner core to all religious or spiritual traditions, without the trappings, doctrinal literalism, sectarianism, and power structures that are associated with institutionalized religion.”

So I turn to a favorite classic of literature here, Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, finding particularly relevant his quote of Francois Fenelon (at 257 of the Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition) to the subject of wisdom as an outgrowth of embracing the aging process as part of our experience of our selves:

Faults will turn to good, provided we use then to our own humiliation, without slackening in the effort to correct ourselves.  Discouragement serves no possible purpose; it is simply the despair of wounded self-love.  The real way of profiting by the humiliation of one’s own faults is to face them in their true hideousness, without ceasing to hope in God, while hoping nothing from self.

If we can avoid becoming overwhelmed with the discouragement of old age and its changes to us and in us, perhaps we can exercise that sagacity referred to above.  There a number of resources in the wisdom of aging category, including the late Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s book From Age-ing to Sage-ing which led to the founding of the Sage-ing International organization, which hosts workshops, webinars, conferences and other forums for fostering “spiritual eldering.”  Their website states that moving from age-ing to sage-ing involves the following:

  1. Developing a willingness to deal with life completion and overcoming the desire to stay in denial of aging.
  2. Coming to terms with our mortality.
  3. Acquiring the skills for working on the inside by practicing journaling, meditation, imaginal exercises, and spiritual intimacy by creating safe and sacred space in dyads.
  4. Paying attention to our body, feelings, mind, and spirit, being guided by them and maintaining them in the right tone, mood, and attitude.
  5. Giving  a real hearing to the inner voices – allowing all the minorities within the whole person their witness.
  6. Beginning to do life repair:
  • in health
  • in practical matters with wills and testaments
  • in relationships and between generations
  • by reaching into the past and offering release and healing
  • through forgiveness work with release from vindictiveness
  • by finding the pearls in the anxious memories
  • 7. Doing the philosophical homework by raising questions about the purpose and the meaning of our lives.
  • 8. Serving as elders to others as guides, mentors, and agent of healing and reconciliation on behalf of the planet, the nation, and the family by being wisdom keepers.
  • 9. Preparing for a serene death and afterlife, furnishing our solitude with God.
  • 10. Doing this nobly in connectedness with the inner, actualized self,  already realized, individuated, and complete.This is a formidable list, but fortunately there is assistance in the Sage-ing community for these efforts.  There are also other excellent resources which may involve a bit less introspection and life review.Jane Barton (of Cardinal Life LLC), an excellent local speaker with whom I am acquainted, has a program she has entitled “The Journey of Aging.”  Part of her programming covers the denial of death and the aging process and how that unwillingness to engage with our mortality adversely impacts our present abilities to consciously and deliberately plan for our future.

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Boulder Senior Law Day is Saturday, September 23, 2017

Venetian Canal

 

The Boulder County Senior Law Day will take place this Saturday at the Plaza Event Center in Longmont, CO.  Here is their website if you are interested in registering for the event or would like more information.  There will be 20 different presentations on topics ranging from how to serve as a fiduciary or health care agent for another person; the basics of Medicaid and what you need to know; what’s “trending” in elder fraud (presented by Jane Walsh, Deputy DA from the 20th judicial district); special needs planning and many other interesting topics.  I have been asked to present on ethical wills and leaving a meaningful legacy.

I have written several blog posts on this topic, but I find something new to write about each time I return to this topic!  Most of us estate planning attorneys need to have a sharp eye for identifying potential minefields in a client’s choice of beneficiaries.  It goes without saying we must be vigilant to find ways of minimizing conflict and potential conflict among fiduciaries (agents under powers of attorney, trustee, and the like) as well as beneficiaries in assisting a client in putting together a comprehensive estate plan for managing disability or incapacity (using durable powers of attorney) and for post-mortem planning (by using a will and other available tools suited to the client’s situation).

The estate planning documents we draft for clients are legal documents and we lawyers tend to draft them in ways that are free from language regarding the testator’s (the legal term for a person who makes a will) thoughts or feelings about particular persons or things, but some important documents can help fill in the gaps or empty spaces.  One of these is an ethical will.

Another related document is what is known as a “side letter” which is focused more closely on fleshing out and providing the context for a testator’s intent concerning the rationale for distribution in a will or other estate planning document.  These “side letters” are not without risk and they will likely not be effective in swaying contentious beneficiary who holds to the belief that they have been cheated out of a larger share of an estate.

What I will be talking about Saturday are the benefits of drafting an ethical will or legacy letter to “bequeath,” if you will, the intangible legacy and values of a person’s life.  This writing can also greatly benefit the writer of the document to provide an opportunity help establish one’s own meaning of existence and to weave together the pieces of one’s life into something one might call purpose.  In today’s always-on age of constant chatter, busy-ness and noise, such an exercise of reflection can be priceless!

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

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