May is National Elder Law Month!

Italian Door

Did you know that the first recognition of this month was in 1963, when President Kennedy declared it to be Senior Citizens Month to honor those 65 and older?

I am observing it in my way by continuing to post about topics relevant to elders and the rest of us who aspire to become “senior citizens” …  Today’s post is another in my series on guardianship reform.

I recently read a new publication by Thomas Lee Wright, The Family Guide to Preventing Elder Abuse (2017: Skyhorse Publications). Wright also produced Edith and Eddie,” the 2018 documentary short Oscar nominee, which you can watch here.  I watched this poignant short film about a newly married nonagenarian couple.  There were many things in the short that were left out of the film which concerned Edith’s dementia.  The film could have gone into detail about the legal wranglings relating to Edith’s guardianship, but it didn’t.  To my mind, the beauty of the story was its simplicity: their love for each other.  I don’t want to give a spoiler alert concerning the sad ending, suffice it to say it had to do with Edith’s guardian’s decision-making authority.

Back to the book.  Many aspects of Wright’s book I found to be informative and helpful, but one of the shortcomings I sometimes find about books of this nature which originate from an author’s personal experience, is that its scope tends to be narrow and somewhat reactive to the situation with which the author unfortunately was made familiar.  I did like that many of the chapters are written by others with expertise in the field about which they write and provide different perspectives.

Are the Probate Attorneys and the Guardians of Incapacitated Elder Adults Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem?

As an attorney representing clients involved in protective proceedings or related matters, I work in an imperfect system.  Sometimes I struggle to explain to clients why things work the way they do.   Sometimes they ask me why it is so hard, why it has to be so difficult to take care of a parent.  My answer is always the same: if it were easy to do the right thing, we would live in a vastly different world. There is no black/white or right/wrong in our legal system, even fewer in probate matters as there are many perspectives and viewpoints of someone’s “best interests” in probate court.  A colleague once referred to it as “like a divorce except with five people involved.”  It is in this sense a branch of domestic relations court.

Why is this observation important? Each of us – attorney, client, as well as the other involved in proceedings (and there can be a rather large cast of characters) always need to keep in perspective that we have our own perception of what is happening and why, our own beliefs about what is in another’s best interest, and our probate court system tries to account for these things while respecting due process rights of the elder involved who is not able to make or communicate important decisions relating to the court proceedings.

But I digress, so back to the book… of interest to me were chapters 7 “Working with Professionals” (doctors and lawyers) and chapter 8 “Abusive Guardianships.”  Chapter seven addresses how to work with doctors and lawyers.  Many of my clients with whom I work have not previously hired an attorney.  There are many things to consider in hiring a lawyer in the elder law context, but I think the most important considerations are working with someone you feel you can trust, he uses clear and effective communication skills and answers your questions and provides guidance.

As for chapter eight, I found the co-authors’ very brief “history” of guardianship law to be not helpful and its broad statement concerning the standard of proof in guardianship proceedings is misleading and could easily have been corrected with fact checking.  In Colorado, the standard of proof for establishing a conservatorship is a preponderance of the evidence, while for a guardianship the standard is clear and convincing evidence.  There is no “one size fits all” preponderance of the evidence burden of proof in civil proceedings.

I also found their use of the term “predatory attorneys and guardians” to be vague and misleading.  I was not sure whether the term was used to refer to professional guardians and there were few details to flesh out the use of these terms.  As an attorney in Colorado, I can say that in a Petition for Guardianship or Conservatorship, I must alert the court as to the existence of a medical or general (financial) power of attorney and will typically explain in the Petition why the agent is unable to perform their duties as anticipated.  The advance planning in the form of POAs is not just summarily chucked out the window!

Advance planning does not work 100% of the time.  Complications can arise when an agent is no longer willing to perform because the job is too difficult.  In my practice this typically takes place because of family dynamics and as a result of sibling relationships becoming more fractured and hostile due to an elder parent’s cognitive decline or incapacity.  Sadly, some children readily take advantage of the situation, sometimes out of a sense of entitlement, that the parent “owes” them, or because they have nurtured a lifelong grudge against the sibling who is selected as the parent’s agent.  Sometimes it’s one child with a “misery loves company” modus operandi, these folks are very troubling to their unwitting parent and the adult child the parent has named to assist the parent as agent.

By the time an adult enters the probate court proceedings as a “respondent” named in a Petition for Guardianship or Conservatorship, the elder parent may be in the final stages of advanced dementia and barely rooted in time and place. Court appointed counsel, known as “Respondent’s counsel” may or may not be able to adequately represent the Respondent’s legal interests due to communication difficulties and a court may find it necessary to appoint a Guardian ad Litem to represent the Respondent’s best interests.

No Respondent Goes Willingly to the Hearing on a Petition for Guardianship!

I have yet to hear an elder respondent state, “why yes, your honor, I have really been slipping cognitively and need the court to appoint someone to take care of everything and make decisions for me.”  The cognitive impairment of an elder is often barely noticeable because it tends to happen over time, often gradually.  Some elders refuse to go to a doctor because they suspect they will get a dreaded diagnosis they don’t want.  I sometimes refer to Alzheimer’s as a contagious disease because it often happens that the denial that something is terribly wrong is shared with a spouse, adult child and sometimes others close to the elder with cognitive impairment that puts them at risk to financial predators.  Couple this with the fact that there is no medication to slow the decline or reverse the losses and the result often means waiting until a catastrophe has taken place.  Maybe mom gave away $30,000 of her $60,000 life savings to one of her kids or to a neighbor or to purchase lottery tickets.

There is neither a simple nor an easy solution to this challenge to our legal system.  It will only become bigger and more complicated as the numbers of old and cognitively impaired baby boomers rise and their often fractured family relationships contribute to the dysfunction.

In the next post on this topic I will look at standards for appointing a guardian or conservator as well as the oversight by the court system of these proceedings, which can cover a long span of years.

© 2018 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

Ethical Wills and “Legacy Letters” – an Overview

denver elder law

Italian Marble

It’s been a few years (3 ½)  since I’ve written on this topic, and a colleague recently asked me to speak on this at an event this fall.   The fact is, I think writing an ethical will is another way of imparting meaning into our lives – whether we are young and healthy and writing to our young children about what we hold dear and hope to carry into their future, or we are old and sick and recording more of a legacy of a life lived.   In my previous blog post, I described five different approaches to writing an ethical will: an explanation; an expectation; an affirmation; an historical document (think genealogy or heirlooms); and a statement of values.

In today’s post, I’m focusing on the last approach – a statement of values.  An ethical will in this context is essentially a document which can serve to identify those values, that “something” to live for, which has sustained the author and given meaning and texture to the tapestry of one’s life.

The ethical will or legacy letter is the big picture view of what can be encompassed in estate planning.  Keep in mind that the majority of Americans die without any estate plan in place.  Many of those folks might simply respond to a question about any need for planning with a retort “I’ll be dead, so I won’t care” – but I think there is some fear lurking behind that otherwise lackadaisical sounding statement. . .

If one chooses to engage in estate planning by executing: powers of attorney which name others to act on our behalf in the event we are unable (which may include a conversation and some direction about how money should be spent for one’s care); a living will to express our end of life health care preferences; and a will which sets forth how our estate will be distributed then  — is it really much of a stretch to go from identifying what you need to live to identify something to live for? I think not!

Here is a link to a website with some touching examples of ethical wills written by a variety of people.   What I am suggesting here is that the ethical will can help us to live life more fully – read: by preparing to die – and as preparation to face the rest of one’s life, with whatever level of fear, exhilaration or trepidation that entails.

So here are some ideas to employ for that statement of values:

Describe who you have been or who you are now in relationship to your family of origin, your family of creation and perhaps your family of choice;

  • Write about those things that you hold most dear, what you are grateful for and perhaps also the things you regret;
  • Describe those principles, rituals, or teachings, etc., which have been important to you and explain why they hold such meaning to you; and
  • Write about aspects of your life and your values that demonstrate the meaning of your life, the experience of that meaning and how you have constructed the meaning(s) over the course of your life.

These are just a few examples of how, in the creative act of putting into words one’s life story, or describing the values one holds dear, one can construct a broader meaning and see connections of the disparate or seemingly disconnected parts of a life in new ways.  The context or impetus for telling one’s story may be significant to the context of the story or perhaps not at all.  Constructing a life story – even if it is only an early part of a life – is an example of how we as human are engaged in the search for meaning.  I have always been fond of Ernest Becker’s term for our species – homo poetica or “man the meaning maker.”

This search for meaning, as well as our attempts to construct and our longing to impart meaning, can be a very useful tool for us at any age.  The ethical will as an example can help us integrate our life’s experiences and help us see the “big picture” of the meaning of our life and the lives of others as well.  It reminds me of Viktor Frankl and his logotherapy, based on “will to meaning.”   Each of us, no matter what is the ease or difficulty we face in our lives, remain free to find the meaning in our own life.  Writing an ethical will can help us construct that meaning.

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

A Brief History of Death

Living and Dying at the Same Time

Can you discern in this picture what is alive and what is dead?

Death, the inevitable.  Death, the rejected.  Do we feel sorry for death? No! Of course not.  Is it separate from our lives or merely a natural part of them? What parts of our lives are we more comfortable with or at ease with and how do these factor into our relationship with death?

Whoa Barb . . . relationship with death, relationship to death.  What is it that holds us to our life and, inevitably, leads us to our death?  What is the meaning of this relationship? Well, I can only think that this kind of question is what poetry was meant for. . .  so I turn to the Trinidadian poet Derek Walcott’s poem Love After Love:

The time will come when, with elation,

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror,

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

 

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

 

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

 

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

Here is the poem read aloud (by Jon Kabat-Zinn)

When I started to put together this post, I thought I’d try a google search of my title, which tends to bring up something fascinating.  Sure enough, there was another reminder about my lapsed New Yorker subscription . . . a post dated 11/6/16 by Nir Baram.  The New Yorker has such insidious ways of luring subscribers back again and again!  But I will remain undeterred.

So what might I say for this kind of post – brief, about something as impersonal and ultimately personal as death?  I might describe the denouncing, distancing, the walking or running away from, that so many of us steadily manage over the years of our lives.  But what happens when we realize that the distancing has only been in the shape of a giant and fascinatingly graceful circle, or perhaps a woven pattern or a circuitous route ala Jackson Pollock?  Can we even recognize it as our own, part of our heritage as mortal beings?

How is it (I asked my engineer friend this last night) that we can gauge or measure someone or some thing’s age?  Its beginning and its end?  I certainly see the need for practical purposes to come up with such boundaries.   But we tend to observe them without any questions at all.   And the location of that separation as well as its origins, well that’s another matter.  We might arrive at a place where or a time when we might question those boundaries.  Whose death is it? Who dies?  Stephen Levine’s book explores this well.

My post today is perhaps a window dressing of sorts for some writing I will be doing about the Colorado End of Life Options Act.  I will be interrogating some of the ideas, beliefs, thoughts, expectations and so forth about dying and death (particularly euthanasia) in some future posts.  I’ll close with a quote from a favorite poet, E.E. Cummings:

Unbeing dead isn’t being alive.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Successful Elderhood, Autonomy and Driving

 

Columns of Support

Columns of Support

Last week I was driving from my office in Littleton to my dental appointment in southeast Denver. I took a familiar route, proceeding down the twists and turns of Monaco Parkway as I proceeded north of the Denver Tech Center. I’m not in the habit of recounting my driving experiences in these blog posts, but that afternoon was different because I called 911 while underway.  . . . There was an elderly driver who was driving in the parallel northbound lane alongside me for several blocks and then he moved over (negotiating the median in a sort of left turn) to the southbound side of the parkway as he proceeded northbound (at 30 mph or better). Luckily there were no cars for the four or so blocks he drove down the wrong side of the parkway, so a head-on collision was avoided.  He corrected himself and ended up driving behind me for several more blocks before turning off from Monaco Parkway. I didn’t think it was a drunk driver – I suspected it was a confused driver.  Just a couple days before a colleague from one of my listserves had asked me about what could be done regarding contacting someone about an elder he knows who has much difficulty operating a motor vehicle.   This is a tricky matter!  He forwarded me the email he received from the commander of the metro district for the Colorado State Patrol, which advised him to

Dial *CSP(277) from a cell phone if you observe dangerous driving behavior.  Of course, if the situation rises to the level of an emergency, you can always dial 911.  These situations are particularly difficult as pro-actively requiring a person to submit to a re-exam for their driving privilege can only be initiated by a family member or a physician.  Law enforcement can make the request but only after observing driving actions that would support the need.

I was reminded of the 14-year-old boy who was killed in southeast Denver by an 81-year-old driver with a history of driving problems.  This issue of when it is time to turn over the car keys is a difficult one for many elders as well as their family members because alternative transportation arrangements are required to get the elder to the grocery store, appointments and other places.  Many elders will not willingly give up their car keys and sadly, it often takes a crisis or an accident for the elder and family members to realize driving is no longer a safe option for the elder.

One of the other factors (besides requiring alternative transportation for a car-less elder) contributing to the difficulty of determining when driving is no longer safe is the challenge of getting a diagnosis of dementia.  This fear of such a diagnosis is shared by elder and family members – which is why I have referred to dementia as being “contagious” in the sense that we are all afraid of it – for the elder and for ourselves as family members.

So when do we decide and how do we decide, as individuals, families and communities – when we are no longer able to safely operate a motor vehicle?  Do we tenaciously cling to our badge of independence?  A Rilke quote comes to mind here:

The transformed speaks only to relinquishers.  All holders-on are stranglers.

From: Uncollected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Edward Snow, 1996.

What part of our identity as autonomous persons is our ability to be able to drive?  This concern with safety is a distinct one because it involves operating a car and all the dangers that poses to the drivers and others on the roads (or sidewalks).  Here is a recent article which addresses the challenges to driving a car which are faced by the growing number of persons diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.  How do we negotiate the changes in our lives and our ability to manage for ourselves as we age?  These questions do not have easy or even simple answers, but we must nonetheless grapple with them!  I think another poem is in order. . .. this one entitled “Sunset:”

Great carnal mountains crouching in the cloud

That marrieth the young earth with a ring,

Yet still its thoughts builds heavenward, whence spring

Wee villages of vapor, sunset-proud. —

And to the meanest door hastes one pure-browed

White-fingered star, a little, childish thing,

The busy needle of her light to bring,

And stitch, and stitch, upon the dead day’s shroud.

Poises the sun upon his west, a spark

Superlative,—and dives beneath the world;

From the day’s fillets Night shakes out her locks;

List! One pure trembling drop of cadence purled—

“Summer!”—a meek thrush whispers to the dark.

Hark! the cold ripple sneering on the rocks!

E. E. Cummings (or e.e. cummings, if you prefer)

I will write more on this topic soon.

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

The Expression of Grief as an Essential Human Activity

Mount Hope in Rochester, New York

Mount Hope in Rochester, New York

Say what?! Grief, Barb – isn’t that suffering that we all want to avoid?  Well, not so fast. Yes, I am working my way up to some more posts about euthanasia, and grief and grieving is the middle ground for this passage.  Sadly, I have been unsuccessful in locating any old SNL clips on the internet which feature Gilda Radner as Emily Litella, I’m thinking of her piece about “Youth in Asia.”  I’m an optimist, so I’ll continue to search . . .

Let’s begin this one with a question – What is grief?  My web search turned up a wide variety of things including: keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret; a strong, sometimes overwhelming emotion for people, regardless of whether their sadness stems from the loss of a loved one or from a terminal diagnosis they or someone they love have received; and it seems that grief can be both a cause as well as a result.  This is demonstrated by the verb “grieve” which is the activity of feeling, experiencing grief.  One source noted that the definition of grief depends on things like who we are grieving and when we are grieving and also why. I find it strikingly odd that in the sentence following such broadly appropriate subjective factors, the accepted “stages” of grief are identified.  I am certain that Dr. Kubler-Ross did not intend her “stages” to become the accepted norm for what passes for grief and grieving in this country, but that is what has happened. The reference to these stages  is invariably accompanied by a disclaimer like “while there is no one ‘right’ way to grieve. . . “  but there most certainly is a correct way because we have quantified and objectified this most personal and subjective of human activities!

The fact is, we have precious few recognizable rituals around the expression of grief, and because we lump it under that generic heading of “suffering” we insist that people get through their own stages as quickly as possible so that they can “move on” with their lives.  Odd way of minimizing this feeling that can arise over most any loss, in fact it can be argued that the small losses and how we handle those are good practice for the larger ones that invariably lie ahead.  This is one of the reasons I always insisted on pet funerals when my kids were young.  If you don’t start somewhere by practicing, you just don’t have any life experience on which to draw when you may really need a bit in reserve.

So, why am I criticizing the focus on the stages of grief?  I do not mean this in any way as a criticism of Dr. Kubler-Ross’s groundbreaking work, but rather as an observation that grief has now come to be objectified and quantified such that there are acceptable parameters identifiable by the medical and psychological community.

Sometimes this thinking about feeling can simply go too far.  What comes to mind here is the lost sense of balance.  I am going waaay back here, to the ancient Egyptians and the symbol that has become known as the eye of Horus (as personified by the goddess Wadjet and no, not the video game by the same name. . . . ). You might recognize it, it looks like this:

 

[thank you Wikipedia – you can make a donation to their cause here]

 

So the components of the eye of Horus consist of several constituent senses and also correspond to measurements. Forr my purposes here I am concerned with its association with the six senses: smell, sight, thought, hearing, taste and touch.  Yes, thinking is listed as one of the senses – it is one of our faculties after all.  In our mainstream culture that is so focused on quantifying things, identifying objective reality of a material universe, thinking gets elevated far above its historical position in a more traditional pantheon of human attributes.

I refer to the eye of Horus for purposes of asking ourselves about the place where we find ourselves in this culture with all of our thinking, our information and our never-ending thirst for more.  We have become estranged from uncertainty and questions about which thinking does not provide suitable answers.  We have forgotten how to ask the philosophical questions and how to be with the mysteries. I am not diminishing in any way the information which we now know, I am merely wondering about its proper context.

Death, the end of life and the end result of feeling the loss of another or a part of ourselves – these are  mysteries in many ways that thinking can help us with but thinking is only part of the response, the activity required.  Our over-reliance on thinking has caused us to forget how we honored death and the end of life in previous times. I do not believe this is progress and I find this aspect of the death taboo very troubling – that we cannot even comfortably talk about that about which we cannot really “know” from a thinking sense.  This doesn’t mean we are not equipped to talk about this topic from other perspectives – it just means we are much less likely to be comfortable in doing so.

So, I will end this post with a poem penned by a friend about mystery.

It was written by Richard Wehrman, a co-retreatant with me at a seminar in Rochester, New York last September.  The topic of the retreat was “The Angel of Memory.”  Thankfully, Richard willingly shares his beautiful poetry.  This one is entitled “Visits From the Dead.”

This morning the Dead visit me on

the veranda. We drink strong coffee and

watch the wind raise white waves on the sea.

The Dead do not like to be called the dead.

“That is a word the so-called Living use,” they say.

“We are the ones alive, the ones who are real.”

The sun shines through my companions. I cast

a shadow; they do not. “We are so much clearer than you,

like pure water, like crystal.” If I blur my eyes they

are there, I can only see them with my heart.

They are complete like a jewel, like a chakra,

a whole life from beginning to end.

Later we go exploring together, up and down

the sandy paths by the sea. “We are beings

as you are—as are the trees, the animals, the clouds

in the sky.” And where do you live,

I ask them? “We live here, in this World,”

they say, “where else could we be?”

In the evening I gaze over the palms and orchids,

over a glistening vibrant sea. Everywhere I turn,

living beings look back like raindrops, sands

cast up by the sea. Their vibration is endless, like

looking through rippled glass. We are one

multiplicity, innumberable, inseparable.

 

What if the dead – not our children – are our future?  So, dear reader – here’s to life and being alive and conscious of it!

 ©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Capacity and Incapacity in the Health Care Context

Denver Botanic Gardens

Denver Botanic Gardens

In this second installment about capacity and incapacity, I’m looking at capacity in the health care context.  To recap, the fundamental question of “how much capacity is enough” must be answered with a response beginning with “it depends . . . !”  Some of the varying standards of capacity in elder and estate law can be demonstrated among these categories of capacity:

  1. To make a will (testamentary capacity) – including a will with a testamentary trust
  2. To designate a health care agent in a medical power of attorney (MDPOA)
  3. To execute a general (durable) power of attorney
  4. To execute an advance directive (living will)
  5. To execute a revocable (or irrevocable) inter vivos (living) trust
  6. To make a gift to another person
  7. To make a gift of real estate to another person (via a deed)

So you may be wondering how estate planning attorneys manage these different types of capacity determinations regarding their clients when they are engaged to prepare estate planning documents. . . .  Attorneys are well-advised to be cognizant and careful of the different standards so they can effectively represent their clients.  So, you will note that #2 and #4 above relate to the health care context, but there are also other relevant documents that may include the MOST (Medical Orders for Scope of Treatment) form and related medical orders such as a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate). Unlike the standards for capacity in the will, power of attorney, contract and trust-making contexts, capacity in health care is driven by statutory law – not case law or the common law tradition.  You can read a bit more about the history of informed consent in one of my earlier posts.

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, often a decision by “committee” of family members and perhaps the need for instituting guardianship proceedings in probate court.

The documents evidencing the decision-making authority of various named agents and surrogates in advance directives and MDPOAs are valid in every state of the U.S, and while each state has different laws concerning these important health care documents, they are generally viewed as “portable.”  It is a good idea to keep these documents up to date and current with the laws of the state in which a person resides.  I think it is important to update an advance directive every few years, especially as a person ages, because health care wishes are subject to change, based on one’s outlook and experience over time.  If you aren’t sure where to start in this regard, go to The Conversation Project to begin.  Every person over eighteen really ought to have a medical power of attorney!  This is a simple but powerful document and it is best to have a conversation with your selected agent to make sure (1) they are willing to serve and (2) they know what you want.  I haven’t yet met anyone who wants to be named as a health care agent – charged with life and death decision making authority with regard to the principal (the person naming the agent) – who wants to perform that job without knowing what the principal wants!

One last point for this overview, you might be wondering about those electronic medical records for a person who is incapacitated or has died and an agent or guardian or personal representative is charged with the authority over electronic records?  Colorado law doesn’t specifically address “digital assets” yet, but the Uniform Law Commission’s UFADAA (Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act) is final as of July 2014 and ready for state adoption.  There are grounds to have some privacy concerns in the medical and mental health context of digital assets.  The best method to clarify your wishes about maintaining privacy or limiting access to these records is to execute the necessary documents to name your agent and state your specific wishes – particularly with regard to third party electronic medical records access (agent, guardian, personal representative, etc.).  The best policy to specifically address these concerns in the relevant and applicable documents, and if you don’t yet have these documents, remember that the upcoming holiday season is an excellent time to have the conversation about end of life wishes.

©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

 

 

 

Dementia and Memory: Out of Time, Out of Mind II

Mount Hope Angel

Mount Hope Angel

This second part of the post focuses a bit more on the qualitative aspect of memory – memory as meaningful life activity, not just a necessity of daily functioning and detail management that holds together moving parts.  I will include the quote from James Hillman I used in my first post:

Why do the dark days of the past lighten up in late recollection?  Is this a subtle hint that the soul is letting go of the weights it has been carrying, preparing to lift off more easily?  Is this a premonition of what religious traditions call heaven, this euphoric tone now coating many of the worst experiences, so that there is little left to forgive?  At the end the unforgiveables will never be forgiven, because in old age they do not need to be forgiven: they simply have been forgotten.  Forgetting, that marvel of the old mind, may actually be the truest form of forgiveness, and a blessing.

Hillman, The Force of Character at 93.  In case you’re wondering about whether I am promoting some Romantic view of memory or denying all the recent advances in neuroscience, I would unequivocally state “no.”  In fact, a favorite of mine in that discipline is Dr. Norman Doidge’s book published in 2007 entitled The Brain That Changes Itself.  Particularly instructive for purposes here is his chapter entitled “Turning Our Ghosts Into Ancestors,” about psychoanalysis as a neuroplastic therapy that helps a sixty-year-old man recover long-buried memories of the death of his mother (when he was a small child) so they could be transformed and improve his relationships and life.

I think part of what Hillman is talking about is that quality of memory, which often gets neglected in our present culture that glorifies the person as a right-bearing agent of our own destiny, valued for capacity, independence and measurable productivity.   This makes me think of Massimo Cacciari’s book The Necessary Angel.  I find intriguing what he says about our space-filling tendencies of this modern obsession  we have with chronological time, especially where he observes that “the greatest idolatry is the cult of the has-been of the irreducible it-was.”   Cacciari at 51.

If this obsession of the factual, objective or “forensic” memory is idol-worship of the “cult of the has-been,” and indeed widely and universally worshipped indeed as “chrono-latry,” then might the recognition that letting go of details that do not serve life review and accumulation of wisdom be an appropriate response to that greed, of releasing the power of the idols?  If we as human beings are more than our personalities accumulating and exchanging our experiences as a form of “currency,” then recognizing this and getting past the worship of the idols of chrono-latry would look like progress!

One very important aspect of the quality of memory for many elders is as a part of life-review, of integration and wisdom acquisition and consolidation.  Another of the qualities of memory is kairos.  It strikes me that our generation’s dependence on smartphones means that many of us need to memorize fewer of the important operational details of our lives.  This is of course liberating, but it is also a trade-off.  No, I won’t go astray here to discuss that issue!  Suffice it to say that the term “memoria” in the Western classical tradition is based on the Latin term for memory.  Memoria was one of the five canons of rhetoric, which grew out of oratory.  The classical orators used no notes, let alone Power Point slides!  I add this point to draw the connection between memoria and kairos – I’ve blogged about it previously.  Kairos being the right time, the opportunity, based on an attunement to the right time to recall memory – memory being identified in the Ad Herennium as “the treasury of things invented.”  So perhaps we might come to more closely examine and question our relatively recent and very narrow definition of what is memory and look at the historical notion of memory in its broader context.  This broader view of time in both qualitative and quantitative aspects will certainly diminish the power of the idols of chronolatry.

Yes, this reminds me of the Steely Dan song, Time Out of Mind – you can listen to it here.  This is life review, traditionally a province of poets to write about the letting go at the end of a life and there is thankfully much wisdom from that quarter.

From stanza IV of Dejection: An Ode, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

… we receive but what we give,

And in our life alone does Nature live:

Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!

         And would we aught behold, of higher worth,

Than that inanimate cold world allowed

To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,

         Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth

A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud

                Enveloping the Earth—

And from the soul itself must there be sent

         A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,

Of all sweet sounds the life and element!

 ©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Dementia and Memory: Out of Time, Out of Mind I

Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester NY

Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester NY

So I’m back to that rather slippery theme of memory again – this is the first of two parts. The online Merriam-Webster defines memory as: (1) the power or process of remembering what has been learned; (2) something that is remembered; and (3) the things learned and kept in the mind.  This all sounds very quantitative and linear to me, right in line with most conventional thinking about memory as factual recall, that forensic memory which is objectively measurable.  I think the definition of memoria from the ancient Greeks is more useful and inclusive of the human experience.  Conveniently, it also encompasses the non-chronological aspect of time about which I’ve written before – kairos.  We modern Americans come to think of memory in some fairly odd contexts, like computer memory and we often liken what’s in our heads to our personal hard drive as if it were some kind of data storage system – which it is of course in a very narrow sense.  This also accounts for much of our recent “de-mentation” or offloading many of the factual details of our daily lives like calendars, phone numbers and emails to our smartphones.  So what is the nature of memory in our minds? Is the memory of our heads different from the memory of our hearts?

The Atlantic Monthly recently featured the article “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” by Ezekiel Emanuel, physician and bioethicist.  The message he states is one I have offered to clients many times: longevity has a down side, a dark side potentially in the form of a “gray area” of diminishing cognitive capacity, perceived “uselessness” and for many of us, dementia.  I think the article is an important counter point to our death-denying and youth-glorifying mainstream culture that tends to view aging as a long process of descent from some place in the prime of our adult lives, along a journey where things can only get worse.  But this article that states emphatically – 75 is long enough.  This sounds a bit like some of my Baby Boomer age mates – who having lived through a parent’s dementia – proclaim they want an advance directive that has a box which states something like “if I get dementia and need Depends, just shoot me.”  Don’t get me wrong, I applaud Dr. Emanuel’s message on several different levels in which it challenges conventional wisdom and the misplaced faith our culture has in our medical-industrial complex to keep our lives extended (not accounting for quality or purpose), but I think it misses the mark.  Because babies are delivered via scheduled Caesarean section, does that mean we can cash in our chips at a scheduled time as well?  I think not!

We are re-negotiating the tightrope of what we believe we control and what we do not control as it affects our lifespan in our old age (just as in any other stage of life, but perhaps with less baggage).  We have become used to so many answers from the medical establishment that when we have this unprecedented number of elders facing dementia and/or incapacity, we are likely to simply “declare war,” spend lots of money and turn to big Pharma for some “fix” of our “problem.”  The drug companies are more than willing to oblige and provide us with a pill to help assuage our fears, and yet another tool to interrogate the one with the slipping memory . . .  “did you remember to take your pills today?”  It often seems like an elder can’t exist as such without some kind of medical intervention!

Evident in Dr. Emanuel’s insightful article is the denial of the slowing down associated with old age (read the account of the aftermath of his father’s heart attack).  I contrast this with what the late psychologist James Hillman wrote about in The Force of Character.  In chapter nine, entitle “Leaving,” Hillman describes the conflict between his sixty-six year-old patient and her nonagenarian mother, for whom she supervised care.  The patient was continually frustrated with her mother’s inability and seeming unwillingness to be principally concerned with the factual details of forensic-based (often short term because it involves daily functioning) memory.  Hillman observes (at 88) that he saw this mother daughter conflict as exemplifying “the difference between short-term and long-term memory.  It is as if you cannot have both at once.  One has to give way to the other.”  The chapter provides useful insight into the “life review” stage of elderhood which is gaining wider acceptance as a part of life, not just a loss of the familiar ways of doing from pre-retirement adulthood.  I think it is one of the centerpieces of connected and engaged elderhood.   Hillman closes it with the following questions, so often neglected:

Why do the dark days of the past lighten up in late recollection?  Is this a subtle hint that the soul is letting go of the weights it has been carrying, preparing to lift off more easily?  Is this a premonition of what religious traditions call heaven, this euphoric tone now coating many of the worst experiences, so that there is little left to forgive?  At the end the unforgiveables will never be forgiven, because in old age they do not need to be forgiven: they simply have been forgotten.  Forgetting, that marvel of the old mind, may actually be the truest form of forgiveness, and a blessing.

Hillman, The Force of Character at 93.

This observation brings me back to the rhetorical or existential question I posed in my previous blogpost about what is remembering and what is forgetting.  Hillman weaves that question into a life’s span.  I will close this first post with a poem: Walt Whitman’s poem “Whispers of Heavenly Death”

Whispers of heavenly death, murmur’d I hear;
Labial gossip of night—sibilant chorals;
Footsteps gently ascending—mystical breezes, wafted soft and low;
Ripples of unseen rivers—tides of current, flowing, forever flowing;
(Or is it the plashing of tears? the measureless waters of human tears?)

I see, just see, skyward, great cloud-masses;
Mournfully, slowly they roll, silently swelling and mixing;
With, at times, a half-dimm’d, sadden’d, far-off star,
Appearing and disappearing.

Some parturition, rather— some solemn, immortal birth:
On the frontiers, to eyes impenetrable,
Some Soul is passing over.

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman (1995: Wordsworth) at 328.

To be continued . . . .

©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org