Memento Mori: Bringing Death Into Conversation

Memento Mori – from Kirkwall, Orkney Islands

Memento Mori: Remember Death, That You Will Die

Last weekend I attended the International Death Symposium in Toronto, Canada. I went with a friend who is a Canadian death midwife.  We both enjoyed it. It was a rather extraordinary place to be, amidst an entire community of folks committed to dispelling the death taboo.  The presenters and attendees were Canadians mostly, some Americans and an Irishman who spoke eloquently about his father’s death and wake.

So, what is conversation anyway?

Definition of Conversation

1 obsolete : CONDUCT, BEHAVIOR

2a(1) : oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas

… we had talk enough but no conversation; there was nothing discussed.

—Samuel Johnson

(2) : an instance of such exchange : TALK; a quiet conversation.

Of course, I couldn’t mention “conversation” without a reference to The Conversation Project, which is a very useful tool to help people (like many of my clients) toalk about the end of their lives and express their wishes and values around that part of life.

In this post, I’ll share a couple highlights from the symposium. One of the “rocks stars” who presented was BJ Miller, a hospice doctor from San Francisco.  You can watch a video here about the “problem of death” in our medical delivery system.  Part of his presentation at the Symposium addressed the conflict of aesthetics of caring for the dying and the widespread use of anesthesia.

Aesthetic versus Anaesthetic

My late mother, an R.N. who received her nurse’s training through the Nurse Cadet Corps, would have been thrilled to hear an M.D. make reference to the work of a nurse.  The nurse was none other than Florence Nightingale, the “mother of nursing,” who wrote about the aesthetics of caring for patients.  Miller contrasted Nightingale’s insistence on aesthetics – a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty – with the current widespread use of anaesthesia (or anesthesia in the US) which is the numbing or rejection of aesthetics in favor of

Insensitivity to pain, especially as artificially induced by the administration of gases or the injection of drugs

In this place of intersection between our ability to sense and perceive beauty with the selfsame capacity to sense pain, what do we make of our commonly accepted and pervasive use of drugs in this country (and so much of the west) to numb us down to “ease our suffering” regardless of where in our lives we encounter that suffering?  It could be at the end of our life, somewhere in-between for a surgical procedure, or it could become a lifestyle treatment for anxiety and depression.  Does it matter where the suffering occurs for which we seek anesthesia?

Our Sense or Capacity to Appreciate the Beautiful is Inextricably Linked to Our Capacity to Feel Pain

Isn’t the pain of dying just the pain of living at a time of greater uncertainty?  Why do we pretend we can draw the distinction so clearly –  particularly during a time of unprecedented numbers of people dying of drug overdoses?  I’m not talking about the present opioid crisis – a recent study has shown that our current opioid overdose epidemic actually began forty years ago and has been increasing – exponentially – since then!

How and why we distinguish between the pain of living and the pain of dying . . .  well, that’s a topic for another blog post!

I’ll write more soon about the Symposium.

I’ll close with Emily Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop For Death

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

 

We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility –

 

We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –

 

Or rather – He passed us –

The Dews drew quivering and chill –

For only Gossamer, my Gown –

My Tippet – only Tulle –

 

We paused before a House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground –

The Roof was scarcely visible –

The Cornice – in the Ground –

 

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity –

From The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Thomas Johnson, ed.

That’s all for now, next time I’ll post about the Phone of the Wind, a.k.a Kaze No Denwa

© 2018 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

JeffCo Senior Law Day is June 3, 2017!

The Rialto Bridge at night

May is National Elder Law Month! So – for the last post of this month I wanted to mention this important detail.

The event I’m participating in to observe elder law month, however, is next month . . . the Jefferson County Senior Law Day is coming up on June 3, 2017.  More information about it is here including registration information.

There will be twenty-four separate presentations on more than twenty different topics, beginning at 9:00 a.m. and concluding at 1:45 p.m.   I will be presenting on the topic “Managing the Challenges of Later Life Remarriage.” Last year at this Senior Law Day (there are a few different locations in the front range area, click here for more details on the Colorado Bar Association website) I presented on a similar topic.  Mine is a relatively new topic but is one about which many people have questions.

If you can’t attend this Senior Law Day and are looking for reliable information resources, you can click here to download the 2017 Colorado Senior Law Handbook, published by Continuing Legal Education in Colorado.

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Planning for Aging

Florentine graffiti… what me worry?

How does one assess the value of planning for one’s retirement, potential incapacity and/or eventual demise?  That is a very personal assessment, notwithstanding that the failure to plan has enormous financial consequences – for the individual, their loved ones and society as a whole.  Perhaps a prime and popular example is the failure to make advance heath directives – including appointing an agent under a health care power of attorney and signing a statement of end of life wishes – a/k/a a living will or in Colorado the Declaration as to Medical Treatment.  Read here for more useful information from the Colorado Advance Directives Consortium.  Many of us, perhaps most, would rather not entertain the idea that our lives will eventually change.  Our lives change every day, but whether we mark those changes is up to us!

“In the beginning is relation”

This famous quote by philosopher and theologian Martin Buber is a favorite of mine.  In my line of work relation and relationships are keys to planning and realistically assessing how far one can plan as well as the extent to which we must rely on others to assist us in the execution of our planning.

Aging and planning can give us the space to reflect on our values, what has been and remains important to us, and planning can also take much of the burden off our loved ones in the event we face a health crisis during we might be unable to make decisions.

I recently came across Sharona Hoffman’s 2015 book “Aging With a Plan,” and found it very insightful.  Hoffman is a law professor and, like many of us who practice in elder law, has life experience with an aging and frail parent.  She uses that experience, along with a systematic big picture discussion of a realistic conversation to consider all the alternatives in making plans for one’s aged self.

Many of us assume that, if we have lived in our home independently for 30+, we would never have an intention of leaving that space of storied independence and autonomy.  I note here that many elders (I’m including a number of clients and others) are coming to understand that there are good and workable alternative options for housing and community involvement that can nourish and sustain one’s basic human need to be part of a community and to contribute to that community.

I liked Hoffman’s approach to her book because it is founded on the importance of maintaining relationships, through social interaction and being useful (at whatever level).  The latter, being useful and having something or someone to take care of, is a fundamental premise in the “green house” nursing home alternative.  You can read about that in an article here from the Atlantic Monthly, or more about Dr.  Bill Thomas in a 2016 Washington Post article.  But I don’t want to get off track in talking about “green houses”  . . . .

So what are the components of a plan for aging? We are all familiar with retirement planning (even if the majority of us barely engage in such planning) and its focus on finances.  I think part of the repulsion in retirement planning is the focus on finances, many people simply find the savings part a difficult conversation and so stop before considering other aspects of retirement planning or aging with a plan.  I consider neither of these often heard comments a plan:  “X will never happen to me because my family doesn’t live that long;” or “if I can’t go to the bathroom or feed myself on my own, then just shoot me.”  We still don’t understand the role of genetics and epigenetics on the aging process very well and not deciding this very grown-up matter of “what happens if” means that we are shirking the responsibility be forcing someone else to choose for us…..

I recommend Hoffman’s book – it’s easy to read and its focus on several practical concerns including: finances; elders driving; person-centered (not disease-based) health care; and the importance of an exit strategy; demonstrate that the book is very useful – for an elder or elder-in training, or for an elder’s family member to assist with the awkward place of overcoming years of inertia.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

November is National Family Caregivers’ Month

Clouds in Water

Clouds in Water

In the post, I will look at some of the challenges of caregiving for a loved one with dementia and provide some resources for this growing population.  November is also National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month.  Here’s a link to the Alzheimer’s Association’s caregiver center, which has helpful information and resources.

As we approach the holiday season, it struck me that it would be a good time to revisit this topic.  The holiday season and its focus on family activities and get-togethers, can cause additional strain to family relationships made stressful due to an elder parent or loved one’s dementia.

The first important detail is that people with dementia are usually cared for by family members or friends and the most of them (about 80%) are receiving care in their homes.  Here are some numbers from the Centers for Disease Control:

Each year, 15 million Americans provide more than 17 billion hours of unpaid care for family and friends with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. More than six in ten (62%) caregivers were women, almost one in four (23%) were 65 years of age and older, and three in ten (30%) had children under 18 years old living with them.

Caregivers of those persons with dementia usually provide such care for a longer period than the caregivers for other diseases or conditions, and the CDC statistics on this demonstrate that

More than four in ten (43%) caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s and related dementias provide care for one to four years, and more than three in ten (32%) are caregivers for five years or more. For other types of chronic conditions that require care, more than three in ten (33%) caregivers provide care for one to four years, and almost three in ten (28%) are caregivers for five years or more.  

Caregiver stress, caregiver burnout, and for premature death for an elder spouse of a person a suffering from dementia are all very real risks here.  The demands of caregiving for a loved one with dementia subject the caregiver to greater risks of anxiety, depression and overall poorer quality of life.  So, that is the bad news. . . so what kind of resources are available to support these caregivers?

There are a range of options to consider of course, as every person or family’s situation is unique.  Perhaps all that is really need is a bit of respite care.  Sometimes just the prospect of respite care being available can make a huge difference in the emotional health of a family caregiver.  Here is a link to the Colorado Respite Coalition, which has a variety of resources available.

The vast majority of caregiving in this country is done by family members free of charge.  For many people however, volunteering these services is simply not a financial option.  Here’s a link www.disability.gov, the federal government’s website that has links, resources and helpful information for family caregivers as well as information about how family caregivers can get paid to perform such services.    And here is a link to the eldercare locator, a public service of the U.S. administration of Aging.  The Medicare.gov site also has some information that can be helpful to caregivers about what Medicare provides.  The AARP site lists these five skills that help persons care for the elders they love: observation (paying attention to changes); organization; communication; questioning and tenacity.

Several of the helpful sites above advise elders to put important legal documents in place while the elder retains capacity to do so.  When will you know whether a power of attorney is needed? Chances are good that it will be too late for an elder with dementia to execute a power of attorney once it is determined that such a document is needed!  So, I will close this post with a reminder concerning a couple bare minimum documents which are required to ease the burden of family caregiving: a health care power of attorney (with a conversation about end of life wishes with the named agent, successor agent and perhaps other family members) and a general durable (financial) power of attorney.

Both of these documents are planning documents that are designed to prevent the need for later protective proceedings in probate court  – for guardianship and/or conservatorship – in the event of an elder’s inability to manage their money or if they become incapacitated due to advancing dementia.  The American Bar Association’s “tool kit” for advance health care planning has good questions to consider in how to select your agent and list your priorities.  Remember, one of the best ways for elders to NOT be a burden on their loved ones is to plan ahead and the value of that advance legal and medical planning should not be minimized.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Longevity, Dementia and Ventilator Use

Ketring Lake at Dusk

Ketring Lake at Dusk

Longevity and dementia often go together – dementia or episodes of incapacity can be seen in some respects as the side effects of longevity.  A longer life expectancy doesn’t usually mean that it will be the quality of life that a person enjoyed – mobility, autonomy, social engagement, in the early years of retirement age.

In my practice I sometimes meet with a client who is suffering some cognitive decline.  Sometimes the type of brain disease or form of dementia can be narrowed down and other times this is more difficult.  What is vitally important for these persons is to make sure that they have advance medical directives- in the form of a health care power of attorney as well as a living will.

I should warn you that some of this post is based on a cautionary tale.  This evidenced by a recent Reuters article documenting a surge in ventilator use for nursing home residents with dementia.  The study which is the subject of the article documents the number of nursing home residents with advanced dementia – mostly women – who needed to be hospitalized and were placed on mechanical ventilators.  The use of ventilators for such hospital patients, however, did not lead to a better survival rate.  The article is instructive in noting that this is a recent and troubling development:

In 2013, among every 1,000 nursing home residents with dementia who needed to be hospitalized for some reason, 78 were hooked up to mechanical ventilators, compared to just 39 out of 1,000 in 2000, the study found.  Despite this surge, the mortality rate for these patients with mechanical ventilation remained constant at more than 80 percent.

Why is this happening? The study makes several suggestions, but a common sense answer to an important part of the question of how these patients are “ending up” with a hospital stay that includes being hooked up to a ventilator is somewhat obvious to me: these folks have not executed any health care powers of attorney or a living will.  But sadly, what might otherwise be life-prolonging intervention for many patients does not have the same effect for these elder women with advanced dementia.

One explanation of what happens when a patient has not executed a medical POA or a living will has to do with what types of services are available to these patients in the hospital setting.  The article quoted Dr. Gary Winzelberg as observing that “as long as it’s easier to access an intensive care unit bed [in a hospital] than comprehensive hospice and palliative care services in nursing homes, the trend of increasing use of mechanical ventilation for these individuals is likely to continue.”

Our health care system is not exactly “dementia friendly” when it comes to how it copes with the diminished capacity of a patient with advanced dementia who is unable to give informed consent and otherwise meaningfully participate in their health care decisions.  This is one of the reasons it is vitally important for all adults to have “the conversation” with a loved one they trust.   That conversation should ideally lead to the execution of advance medical directives – the kinds of documents that allow a person’s wishes to be upheld.

What seems theoretical and remote to so many people – is vitally important in the event the person with advanced dementia (or some other cognitively incapacitating disease or condition) wants to maintain some self-determination and the person’s family members wish to support the person’s decision to decline medical interventions like artificial nutrition and hydration and intubation (with a respirator) will become much more commonplace in the coming years as the number of people with dementia continues to grow.

So . . .  how do we “work around” these difficult challenges?

– documents relating to decision-making guidance where a person is suffering from either a terminal condition or persistent vegetative state such that they are unable to made or communicate their own decisions.

The bottom line is we must be prepared and willing to help each other through this kind of difficult time in one’s life.  The best way to do that is with just a bit of preparation in the form of a conversation and documented in a health care POA and a living will.  Now is a great time to have the conversation and remember – it should be revisited at least annually!

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  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

 

Yours, Mine, Ours and Theirs – What Kind of Estate Plan?

denver elder law

A Waiting Bench

 

Last week I zeroed in on the importance of having in place health care advance directives for blended families and for this week’s fourth installment, I am going to go back to the big picture.  Part of the post-modern impatience which afflicts so many of us is to rush to a solution to a problem which is often not fully identified and consequently, many options which may have more comprehensively addressed the situation are never considered.  This is the old saying “don’t just do something, stand there!”  I offer that somewhat tongue-in-cheek because I know this is foreign to most of us, who are much more comfortable with our roles as “human doings” as opposed to “human beings!”

So let’s consider first the background for this big picture with a questions: what kind of family are you?

I recently executed a will for an elder client who mentioned to me that, besides providing for her five children, she considered in many ways as a son a man for whom she had served as a foster parent.  She had made provision for him with an insurance policy.

There are many different types of family just as there are many different types of families.  There are those “families of origin” which are usually those into which we are born and sometimes adopted.  Then there are “families of creation” – those which we choose by the relationships we have, be they biological children or other children, partners, spouses, extended family and friends.

So, back to the question posed above. . . the first obvious question is:

Are you married?

What kinds of joint or separate assets accounts do you own and how will those assets devolve (legal term for be inherited by) upon your surviving spouse, your children or stepchildren, and others for whom you wish to provide?

Do you have a marital agreement which often helps inform the disposition of property in the event of divorce and/or death?

And if you are not married . . .  then what?

Well, quite honestly – this is where things can get much more interesting.  Where the institution of marriage can provide much clarity as to whom will inherit a deceased person’s assets, a lack of a marriage can create many difficulties in long-term relationships if certain measures are not taken.  Many of marriage’s “protections” are evident in the law of intestacy, set forth in our probate code, which provide a myriad of extras available only to a spouse.  There are also protections which allow a surviving spouse to “take against the will” of the first to die spouse if the surviving spouse is qualified to do so.  (This is somewhat complicated, so I will not explain further at this time.)

Have you and your partner ever “held out” as spouses? Then common law marriage might be applicable.  Contrary to some modern folklore, there is no amount of time alone of cohabiting that is sufficient to support the existence of a common law marriage.

Are you and your partner clear about remaining unmarried to each other? This sounds odd, but there are many reasons couples do not wish to marry.  I know of one couple that chose for many years not to marry simply because they were afraid of (read – unfamiliar with) the legal consequences of marriage on their children’s rights relative to the step-spouse!

Couples will sometimes enter into agreements with each other to delineate the boundaries of their relationship.  Some of these might include: a nonmarital agreement; a living together contract; or perhaps a designated beneficiary agreement.  There are a number of ways in which an unmarried couple can solidify their relationship and many of the legal uncertainties surrounding it by simply executing such agreements.  Of course, before these agreements can be entered into, discussion must be had.

As we Americans are living longer than we ever have, perhaps it is time to think a bit more about our living arrangements and the relationships on which they are based.  More on this later!

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Funeral planning, disposition of remains and the importance of “The Conversation”

centennial probate lawyer

Italian Marble

Last Sunday I presented to a lively and engaged group at a local church on the topic of health care self-determination.  This post is a bit of a follow-up to that conversation on the enduring topic that “it is never too soon to have ‘The Conversation.’”  The best approach to getting these matters in order is to have a conversation with loved ones about wishes, which are then solidified by the documentation.  The documents are often meaningless if people don’t know of their existence or the context for the expressed wishes!

These topics seem relatively straightforward, right?  Well, I got the idea for writing this post initially as a result of a discussion that took place on one of my listserves.  It is one of those situations where “the law” and how things work out there in the outside world don’t quite sync.  The question concerned a situation in which decedent stated her wishes to her child that she wanted to be cremated, but the mortuary told adult child that, without anything in writing from the decedent stating her wish to be cremated, they would need to contact and get approval from decedent’s other children to get their joint approval for cremation.  It would seem that the funeral director wanted to follow the old law “next of kin” even though there was a statute in place that covered this issue. . . .  There was a good discussion about this topic and so I thought it was worth writing about.

Defining Death

       You might think this is a straightforward proposition, but it is not, as I have blogged about previously in a post about “brain death.”  The only legal and medical definition of death in our country came about as a result of a uniform law – the Uniform Declaration of Death Act (UDDA).  It was drafted in 1981 by a President’s Commission to study brain death and was approved by both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Bar Association (ABA) shortly after its publication.   The UDDA offers two definitions for a legal declaration of death: (1) the irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions; or (2) the irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem.   The most common type of death is the first one and you can see how the second definition courts controversy, especially given advances in neuroscience and further advances in measuring the occurrence and quality of brain activity.  States have adopted the UDDA, many with their own adaptations of the second definition.  In Colorado, C.R.S. § 12-36-136 provides:

(1) An individual is dead if:

(a) He has sustained irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions; or

(b) He has sustained irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain,

including the brain stem.

(2) A determination of death under this section shall be in accordance with accepted

medical standards.

Death in Colorado encompasses the entire brain, not simply some aspect of brain function.  But the treatment of brain death is inconsistent and some argue that the neocortical death (part of the brain believed to contribute to consciousness) is more appropriate than “whole brain” death and  may better address neurodegenerative disorders that can lead to steep functional decline, particularly in the elderly.  This is an evolving determination, as addressed in (2) above “accepted medical standards.”

So once someone is dead, there is the question of what happens with the body, this is where the Disposition of Last Remains can be helpful information.  The declaration of last remains, addressed in our statutes at Colo. Rev. Stat. §15-19-103 et seq., covers several aspects of the disposition of a corpse.  The context for the statute does in some important aspects address the three major historical funerary customs in our country: (1) the rituals performed for a dead person, which can include a visitation or wake; (2) a funeral or memorial service; and (3) the burial service or inurnment.  No, cryogenic preservation is not covered in the tradition surrounding death and disposition of a body, nor is biological continuity – but assistive reproductive technology legislation covers several aspects of what we might leave behind and in Colorado at least, has room for growth.

The statute contains a form for the declaration of disposition of last remains at C.R.S. 15-19-107, and it includes some very important choices, including:  burial, cremation, entombment or “other;” a disposition as determined by a named designee; and requests concerning a funeral, memorial service and other special instructions.

A disposition of last remains often contains a variety of information and this often includes “Anatomical Gifts.”  These gifts are the primary reasons that we have any law at all that defines death – so as to enable organ donation.  This is why “brain death” is called such and why it still remains controversial in many respects.  In the advance directive form I use, there is a clause concerning anatomical gifts.  Many Colorado residents have selected the option of signing up as an organ donor with the Department of Motor Vehicles (a division of the Department of Revenue), and these folks are identified with a small red heart with an embedded “Y” on the lower right corner of the front of the license or identification card.

So what about the interface of the Disposition of Last Remains with the Medical Durable Power of Attorney (MDPOA)?

The MDPOA statute is found at Colo. Rev. Stat. § 15-14-506, and subsection 3 states:

An agent appointed in a medical durable power of attorney may provide informed consent to or refusal of medical treatment on behalf of a principal who lacks decisional capacity and shall have the same power to make medical treatment decisions the principal would have if the principal did not lack such decisional capacity.

An MDPOA may also contain a statement of wishes or give the authority to the agent, after the principal’s death, to make a determination of disposition of last remains of the principal.  This is so because an MDPOA is a “declaration” as defined by C.R.S. §15-19-103.  This is a long post, thanks for reading and until next week . . .

©Barbara Cashman  2015   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Longevity, Caregiving and the Need for Advance Planning

Springtime in Italy

Springtime in Italy

This Friday (April 24, 2015), I will be speaking at the AARP Colorado Caregiving Symposium at the Arvada Center for Performing Arts.  For that event, I’m looking forward to a “talk show” kind of interactive format designed to engage the audience.  One of the topics I will be focusing on which is obviously relevant to caregiving – is about how we can better navigate our longevity.  A portion of that will look at some of the important conversations to have and documents to have in place.

      What is Health Care Self-Determination?

All of us will die someday, but the majority of us will be disabled or incapacitated (temporarily or longer) before we die. This is but one of the “side effects” of increased longevity.  Having the difficult conversation now – with your family members, loved ones, even your health care providers – can make a huge difference in the type of care you receive and the stress and strain placed on your family in the event of an incapacitating health crisis.   Information is key to maintaining one’s ability to decide.  Here’s a link to a recent article in Forbes with Dr. Atul Gawande (author of the recently released book Being Mortal) about how paying more for doing more health care isn’t such a great deal.

Identifying your surrogate decision maker (a/k/a agent under a medical durable POA) is the most important first step. Before you name this person and a successor agent, you must have a conversation with them to make sure they are willing and able to perform this important job in the even the need arises.  For them to perform this job, the person giving the MDPOA, the principal, must give some important instructions to the named agent and successor agent. Medical Durable POAs, along with other documents, are effective ways to manage uncertainty, to identify the people you want to make health care and other personal decisions for you if you are unable and to give them instruction about what to do.

       What About a Medical Durable POA?

An MDPOA is a simple, inexpensive, and reliable way to arrange for someone to make health care decisions for another (i.e., give informed consent) in the event the principal is, in the opinion of the health care provider, unable to give informed consent.

The types of decisions an agent can make can be broad or narrow, general or specific and the agent’s authority is typically set for the power of attorney document.  I am in favor of powers that confer broad authority on an agent.  This is for two reasons: it requires the principal have a conversation with the agent about what the principal wants (a conversation about these matters is necessary); and there is little likelihood for confusion about what an agent can do.  I tend to think that a short document is best, given the amount of time that health care providers spend with their patients, it is not a great idea to draft a long and complicated document for this purpose.

       Why Do I Need to Have This Conversation? I Really Don’t Want To!

The cost of death denial in our culture is high.  End-of-life situations involving elders are often fraught with emotionality and conflict, and death’s finality does not often bring peace or resolution to a conflict that involves death and grief for a loved one.  Beyond the emotional costs are also the financial, psychological and ethical costs.  If you haven’t named an agent or made any advance directive or other statement of your wishes at the end of your life (when you are not able to decide for yourself), someone else will be charged with making decisions for you, and this is where we have seen much tragedy and conflict result.  In the past we sometimes called these measures heroic, but the connotation was misleading at best.  The term used now is “futile.”   In addition, having the conversation helps ensure that others know of the existence of any advance directive you have.  That is an extremely important detail if one becomes incapacitated.  Here’s a good New York Times article about this topic.

       Tell Me More About These Health Care Documents. . .

If you want to avoid this medical care and personal care related kind of stress and strain on your loved ones, consider the following documents:

  • Medical (Health Care) Power of Attorney
  • Advance Directive
  • CPR Directive (DNR, a medical document which must be signed by a doctor)
  • MOST Form (recently updated in CO, for elderly, chronically or seriously ill persons)

The Colorado Medical Treatment Decision Act is found at Colo.Rev.Stat. 15-18-101 et seq.  The statute allows any adult with “decisional capacity” to execute a declaration.  “Decisional capacity” is defined in the statute at 15-18-103(6) as follows: the ability to provide informed consent to or refusal medical treatment or the ability to make an informed care benefit decision.  Note that the statute speaks about medical treatment decisions and also health care benefit decisions. Yes, our Colorado statutes cover all the bases here.  Colo.Rev.Stat. § 15-18.5-102 and 103 relate to the health care power of attorney for medical treatment, §15-18.5-104 and 105 (the statutory form for naming the surrogate) allows for appointment of a surrogate decision maker for health care benefits.  Why are these documents so important to have in place?  So that you can name a person in charge and know they will be able to perform an important job for you if you need their assistance.  If you don’t name anyone, there is a vacuum, which can result in a decision or lack of one, by a “committee” of family members.  If there is no MDPOA or the MDPOA does not work as intended, instituting guardianship proceedings in probate court may be necessary.

What If I Need Help With My Doctor Visits to Keep Track of All the Information?

In our fee-for-service based health care system, many patients can be overwhelmed by the choices, decisions and amount of information which must be managed effectively to exercise one’s self-determination in medical care. This is often the case with elders who have suffered a health crisis or have an illness which will affect their mobility or ability to live independently.  Consider enlisting the support of another set of eyes and ears for this purpose, in the form of a health care advocate.  A health care advocate is not only another set of eyes, ears and brain focused on medical decisions, the advocate can provide reassurance and companionship to help ensure an elder gets appropriate care, gets answers to questions and otherwise ensure understanding concerning health care services that are recommended.  If you are thinking about getting a health care advocate, make sure it is someone whose judgment you trust and is someone who is not afraid to ask questions or stand up to authority in unfamiliar or stressful situations.

Now that I’ve returned from my spring pilgrimage, I’m back on schedule for weekly blogposts.  Please stay tuned.

 ©Barbara Cashman  2015   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

 

Advance Health Care Planning and the Death Taboo

Summer Flowers

Summer Flowers

Early on in my blog on this website, I wrote a post entitled Law as a Healing Profession, which included a discussion of a law review article by Mark Glover, author of  “A Therapeutic Jurisprudential Framework of Estate Planning.  So I turn again to the big picture of our culturally-accepted death denial and look at the context for some documents that lawyers often prepare to help clients cope with this uncertain enterprise known as life.  Yep, there’s another law review article I’m considering as well – this one entitled “In Denial: The Role Of Law in Preparing for Death,” by Barbara A. Noah and published at 21 Elder L.J. 1(2013) and which you can read here.

Many baby boomers are facing end of life questions and responding with a conversation with family members or loved ones about their wishes.  This is a very positive step.  The conversation must be had many times over the course of our lives, so we know what we want and communicate those wishes to others.  There are different motivations for these important conversations, which are often the result of unsettling experiences around an elder parent’s death, and which compel a person to do things differently.  These conversations are important and invaluable for families and communities, however there is still much death denial.  For a different treatment of the question of death denial, read “Confronting the Cadaver: The Denial of Death in Modern Medicine.” Death denial is found in many places in our culture, it is particularly prominent in our technology centered medical model.  How we have come to be estranged from death has much to do with the fact that most of us don’t have much experience with family members dying at home as this is typically left to the medical professionals to manage, which separates us from the passing of a loved one and what we often feel as our helplessness in the face of encroaching end of life.  The fact is, no one, no institution or technology can protect us from death.

Whose denial is it anyway?  It isn’t just a modern American phenomenon – the death taboo has relevance in many aspects of other cultures and traditions.  Wellness, disease and dying can also be understood in the broader context of medical anthropology, which often informs thinking around the dying process and death.

But even amidst the further study of death denial and criticism of its power to alienate us from life – has much really changed since Ernest Becker’s groundbreaking 1973 book The Denial of Death,  where Becker attributed the materialistic high-tech nature of modern life (I would call it post-modern, to be more precise) that left us in the shallows searching for the meaning, the missing depth of life in the context of inevitable death.  Fear and anxiety are like sharks there in these shallows, terrorizing many of us into a state of helplessness and feeling out of control.  It is one vicious cycle.  In our autonomy-valuing, action-based view of choosing what our lives are, isn’t death the ultimate indignity, particularly when it comes at the end of a disease which we may view as being one that robs one of autonomy and dignity.  Yes, I’m thinking of the ill-fated “death with dignity” bill that made it to a second reading in our legislature in Colorado.  The whole idea behind the “dignity” described in that proposed legislation was to preserve the dignity of a person’s ability to choose, to do something in response to the indignity of disease and its quality of life robbing advance.  This is human dignity that is focused exclusively on the “human doing” and not the “human being” so to speak!

Whose death is it which we confront?  Can we really be present for another’s death if we don’t really know how to do that?  Here’s an article from a nursing journal about death anxiety.

There are many other interesting developments taking place in many communities across the country which respond to the alienation from death by making it part of our lives once again.  I’m thinking here of home care for a recently deceased person, a DIY funeral care in one’s home as well as wider involvement of those who have come to be known as “death doulas” or midwives to the dying.  You can read a recent New York Times article on this topic here.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more soon about how many of us are reclaiming the use of ritual around end-of-life care and the dying process and also the re-sanctification of the dying process…

©Barbara Cashman  2015   www.DenverElderLaw.org