What are we learning from the lockdown?

Memento Mori

Remembering to honor the dead.  The picture is from my annual Memorial Day visit on Monday – accompanied by my brothers – to Fort Logan National Cemetery. I did a search and discovered there are more than 122,000 persons (based on 2014 information) buried at the cemetery.  What struck me as I looked out at all the granite headstones was the number of dead resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.: 101,634 (as of 14:53 MDT on May 27, 2020). It was a very moving visual experience to consider the number of those who have died from COVID-19 as we looked at the many waves in the sea of white headstones. All those victims of the pandemic were people who others cared about, with family and survivors who now mourn them.

Here are a few things I have learned from the lockdown so far (as it is lifting partially now in Littleton, CO):

1. In times of a global pandemic, our focus on rights naturally shifts in favor of considering our relationships with others.

Humans are an intensely social species.  Social distancing has been challenging and life-changing for nearly everyone.  It seemed hardest on the most vulnerable though – including those skilled nursing facility residents who may have had some prior experience with quarantining or “lockdown” as many refer to it – but never for this long a period of time. The pandemic struck hardest at persons of color and those who occupy lower socioeconomic status.  What implications does this have for how we take care of “our” public health?  This remains to be seen.  

2. Staying in touch with loved ones can take many creative forms.

The term “social distancing” overshadowed the last three months of our existence, but it was really “physical distancing” that was and still is a means of curbing community spread.  I’m a subscriber to the Greater Good Magazine and a recent podcast “How to connect when you must stay apart” had some great questions to explore that were far from the ordinary type of conversation we tend to have when we see someone (in person) on a regular basis.

3. Finding a work-life balance is not simply a matter of physical location.

Many of us have been unable to go to our offices or places of work during this pandemic. Tens of millions of people lost their jobs entirely.  None of us knows what the future holds – that much is certain! Many of us are grateful to have been able to work from home – even if we were not particularly happy about it!

4. Change is the only constant.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it best: you cannot step in the same river twice.  Many of us want to “go back” to the pre-pandemic status quo ante.  This is a strange nostalgia, to pine for something because it was routine, not because it brought a happy association.  When will Covid-19 “go away?”  We do not know!

Does change turn back on itself? This brings me to another topic about our short attention span when it comes to history lessons that the Covid-19 pandemic should be considered in some perspective since it’s not the only global pandemic.

5. What?! Covid-19 isn’t the only global pandemic?

A little over a year ago, I hired a professional genealogist to assist me in tracking down records from my mother’s side of the family.  I did not have much information because my mother’s mother died very young. I discover that my mother was the orphaned daughter of an orphaned daughter.  What does this have to do with today’s pandemic, you wonder? It is perhaps a way for me to consider COVID 19 in perspective! I certainly do not wish to minimize the huge death toll of the present pandemic and its interrupted grieving, the structural economic dislocation, or our mental health stresses due to all this and the physical distancing with which we are all struggling.

The message is simple: the oldest, deadliest  and most pernicious human plague of all human history – tuberculosis – remains a global pandemic. How quickly we forget!

The SARS outbreak is the public health event to which most of us could – earlier in the pandemic –  compare Covid-19 – even if it was a bit of a flash in the pan, er panic,  some seventeen years ago. You can read the CDC’s fact sheet about SARS here.  Human coronaviruses were first identified in the 1960’s and COVID-19 (named for its “debut” in 2019) is part of that family.

Tuberculosis, on the other hand, is not caused by a virus at all but rather a bacillus. The bacillus was first identified by Robert Koch in 1882 – a time when TB killed one out of every seven people in the US and Europe. Genetic studies suggest that mycobacterium tuberculosis has been a disease afflicting humans for at least 15,000 years. Human history contains many references to “the white plague,” consumption as well as its other names.  Once the bacterium was identified, however, it would be nearly six decades before streptomycin was discovered by Selman Waksman and others who worked to identify several drug treatment candidates in the 1940s. But TB persists to this day because it has never been “conquered” – to adopt the warfare lingo of the present COVID-19 crises playing out across the globe.  TB has remained a “global pandemic” as identified by the WHO.  The disease has learned from the arsenal of drugs which have been deployed against it over the last sixty-plus years and has responded by evolving drug resistant strains, which of course remain communicable to others.

6. TB also killed nurses and caregivers.

My grandmother Marian died of pulmonary TB just shy of her thirty-first birthday. She was a nurse who likely contracted the disease while she worked as a “private duty nurse,” caring for people in their homes.  My mother was the eldest of the five children who survived her – destined for a local orphanage. After locating her death certificate, I learned that her mother (my great-grandmother) had also left five children behind at her death from pulmonary TB in May of 1918.  My grandmother was twelve at the time of her mother’s death and her father died five months later, a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic.

How quickly we have forgotten our problematic relationship with our microbial nemeses!  It seems that many Americans have chosen to believe the false narrative – based undoubtedly on our misplaced confidence in our human abilities – since we have told ourselves that we are otherwise “in control” of diseases, this COVID-19 must somehow be man-made!  The fact remains that we are not “in control” of our planet and the living beings with whom we are in community – and we never have been. Life is fragile and we must take care of each other in order to ensure our collective survival.

©2020 Barbara E. Cashman, www.DenverElderLaw.org

Dreaming Into Dying: A Practice for Letting Go

 

dreaming-into-dying

Patience

I thought since last week I wrote on the topic of dreaming into retirement, well – why not take it a step further and look at dreams of the dying or dreams of death?

Research Into Dreams of the Dying

Here’s an interesting article from the New York Times February 2, 2016.  The story is about some work from a team of researchers led by Dr. Christopher Kerr at Hospice Buffalo.   The study was conducted with fifty-nine terminally ill patients, nearly all of whom reported having dreams or visions, most of which were comforting.  The article noted that

The dreams and visions loosely sorted into categories: opportunities to engage with the deceased; loved ones “waiting;” unfinished business. Themes of love, given or withheld, coursed through the dreams, as did the need for resolution and even forgiveness. In their dreams, patients were reassured that they had been good parents, children and workers. They packed boxes, preparing for journeys, and, like Mr. Majors, often traveled with dear companions as guides. Although many patients said they rarely remembered their dreams, these they could not forget.

Reading about “traveling companions” reminded me of a dream my father related to me some weeks before he passed away.

Dreams and Dying as Part of Life’s Process Toward Completion

The article and the research it discusses are remarkable because it addresses one of the taboo subjects around dying as a life process – is there preparation for it with our psyche’s assistance (through dreams or visions) and whether persons sometimes know in advance that death is imminent (notwithstanding the lack of knowledge of an illness).  Our cause and effect, materialist-objectivist obsession with measuring what we can know (or pretend to know, if enough people are in agreement) generally simply denies outright the mystery of the end of life.  But as more people die at home or with hospice and palliative care providers who are not leading a pitched against the “enemy” – collectively disease and death – it seems that we are gaining more personal experience with death and dying.  It might represent a gradual questioning or moving away from the model of technocratic dying in hospitals, where expressions of our relationship with and compassion for dying loved ones generally had to be subjected to the intrusions of our medical-industrial establishment and its protocols administered by “experts.”

A Scientific American Mind article entitled “Vivid Dreams Comfort the Dying” also explored Dr. Kerr’s work, which was published in the American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Care.  It seems that the conclusions are likely to be consistent with dreams of dying and deathbed visions and visitations recorded throughout history: that most of the time the person is comforted by the dream or vision of their impending demise, as if Psyche were assisting with the transitions as a kind of midwife.

The Experience Is More Likely to be Labelled a “Vision” if it is Comforting to the Dying Person

If the experience is upsetting to the person, typically a patient receiving hospice care, it might otherwise be termed a “hallucination” or “delirium.”  But I like the unequivocal language of this post from Crossroads Hospice about end-of-life visions:

These visions are not hallucinations or a reaction to medication. The most important thing to do if your loved one is seeing visions or having visitation dreams is to acknowledge and support them. Do not argue with your loved one about the experience, correct them, or try to explain the vision. Do not panic as that can upset your loved one. Instead, take them at their word and encourage them to share the experience with you.

“As a caregiver, it is not our job to prove, disprove, or do experiments,” says Carolyn. “We are there to provide support and comfort.

In most cases, these end-of-life visions are indeed a source of great comfort to the person experiencing them.

It’s reassuring to know that as more people are able to die at home with support from hospice care provided, this aspect of the death taboo is losing more of its sting.  A link to one last resource guide is in order, this one McGill University called “Nearing the End of Life: A Guide for Relatives and Friends of the Dying.”

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Are There Alternatives to Guardianship for an Elder with Dementia?

Abacus of Glass Beads

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

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

who is unable to effectively receive or evaluate information or both or make or communicate decisions to such an extent that the individual lacks the ability to satisfy essential requirements for physical health, safety, or self-care, even with appropriate and reasonably available technological assistance.

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

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

The medical or health care POA

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limited guardianship

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

Plenary or unrestricted guardianship

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

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

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

 

Identifying the Inner Landscape of Elderhood

 

Italian Arch

Last week I went on a “spring break” trip of sorts. . .  to the Jung in Ireland seminar with the Monks of Glenstal Abbey. This year’s topic was shame and pride.  It was my third trip to Ireland for this seminar and this year’s topic resonated with me because I encounter these difficult emotions – particularly shame – in my elder law and probate practice.  Some of the issues I see, which have burgeoned into legal difficulties and which may necessitate legal proceedings – often resulting in extensive involvement by a court, might begin with these difficult emotions and play out badly in the family relationship context.

In my experience, one of the most difficult things for an elder parent to contend with is a squabble over how the elder’s health challenge or cognitive decline or other age-related malady will be managed by the adult children.  This can be a difficult place for a family as the elder parent just wants the kids to stop fighting, while the children often wage a pitched battle over who has the correct approach to helping the parent manage difficulties, as well as difficulties in identifying and upholding what each child perceives (often differently) as the best interests of a parent.  These adult children often cannot understand that each of them may be just as convinced as another sibling with an opposing point of view that they are uniquely equipped to handle the delicate issue of managing finances, helping secure appropriate housing or serving as a health care agent for their parent.

I offer these posts as a kind of alternative to an elder parent doing nothing – hoping not to cause world war III among their children.   Some parents hold to their firmly held belief that they “raised their kids right” and so naïvely want to believe that this thinking will somehow immunize them from conflict or worse, exploitation.  Many elders simply choose to wait, and simply hope for the best in the event a crisis occurs, to see how things might play out on a kind of wait and see basis.  There is an alternative to this denial!

This alternative I describe is about the kairos of elderhood. Kairos being the quality of time, the paying attention to the present and its opportunities to see what is in front of us and that which we have set before ourselves.  In our culture we focus almost exclusively on the quantitative aspect of time – chronos – as we simultaneously obsess over our longevity and puzzle over what to do with it.  In this post, I will identify the inner landscape as a determiner of what we see and perceive as the outside world – and how this might free us from some of our anxieties about aging and its deleterious effect on our human doing-ness.

What is the “inner landscape” to which I refer?  Well, the inner would refer here to the landscape which is inside us, how we see the world. I am reminded of Anais Nin’s keen observation that “we see the world not as it is but as we are.”  How can we remember this important detail in our “always on” world, where the disease of busy-ness is a chronic affliction and the pace of our lives offers few opportunities (much less encouragement) of staking out some reflective and contemplative time in our lives to consider an inner landscape?

In his book Mindsight, the psychiatrist Daniel Siegel offers an insightful description about personal transformation(s) that can lead to an integration of a self otherwise consisting of many disparate aspects.  I quote Mindsight at 238:

This drive for continuity and predictability [of a sense of self] runs head-on into our awareness of transience and uncertainty.  How we resolve the conflict between what is and what we strive for is the essence of temporal integration.

How many of us could remember by heart Blaise Pascal’s injunction “in difficult times carry something beautiful in your heart?”  If we can remember, perhaps that something beautiful is a feature of our inner landscape, made visible to us by an experience when we were outdoors in nature, in an interaction with another person or being, or perhaps by some sense of our identity relative to the “outside” world.  Our sense of permanence is illusory, and draws us again to the distinction between what we see and what we look for – the latter being where the Kairos quality of time resides.

That “something beautiful” is perhaps what Viktor Frankl describes in this quote from Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he describes the challenge of readjusting to life outside for the concentration camp survivors like himself:

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our question must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

I am reminded also of “Against the Pollution of the I,” by another concentration camp survivor (the blind French resistance leader), Jacques Lusseyran, where he describes “seeing” (remember he lost his sight as a child) …

It is often said that seeing brings us closer to things.  Seeing certainly permits orientation, the possibility of finding our way in space.  But with what part of an object dies it acquaint us?  It establishes a relationship with the surface of things.  With the eyes we pass over furniture, trees, people.  This moving along, this gliding, is sufficient for us.  We call it cognition.  And here, I believe, lies a great danger.  The true nature of things is not revealed by their first appearance.

Against the Pollution of the I, at 54 (2006: Morning Light Press).

I will end this post with another question, akin to the kairos-chronos distinction: If we as individuals and as persons in relationship with loved ones valued our time (how we spend it) as much as we do our space (how we fill it with stuff) – could this change our relationships for the better?

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Colorado End of Life Options Act Vocabulary part II

denver elder law

Strange Orchid

 

So this is the second post examining our new statute. Today I’m focusing on a couple of its provisions which provide an intersection which I find quite troubling.  Let’s look first at  C.R.S. 25-48-103. Right to request medical aid-in-dying medication

  • (1) An adult resident of Colorado may make a request, in accordance with sections 25-48-104 and 25-48-112, to receive a prescription for medical aid- in-dying medication if:
  • (a) The individual’s attending physician has diagnosed the individual with a terminal illness with a prognosis of six months or less;
  • (b) The individual’s attending physician has determined the individual has mental capacity: and
  • (c) The individual has voluntarily expressed the wish to receive a prescription for medical aid-in-dying medication.
  • (2) The right to request medical aid-in-dying does not exist because of age or disability.

Seems simple enough, but did you read (2)?  This (2) is particularly interesting as it looks to be intended to try and minimize criticism from two quarters: First from elders and those who work for and with them (like yours truly) who can both understand the quality of life aspects of the availability of MAID to frail and vulnerable elders; and can also see the connection between “duty to die” (remember Gov. Lamm?) and a “right to die” based on . . . .  a perceived (by others) quality of life and use of scarce resources.  This statutory language provides no comfort for me.  Secondly, this (2) is also a vain attempt to disqualify criticisms from the disability rights community (folks like Not Dead Yet,) who challenge equating “quality of life” and “loss of autonomy” with “dignity.”

If you think I’m exaggerating the concern with ageism and loss of dignity of elders inherent in this statute, then simply turn your attention to §25-48-116 (Immunities for actions in good faith) which states at (3):

A request by an individual for, or the provision by an attending physician of, medical aid-in-dying medication in good-faith compliance with this article does not:

  • (a) Constitute neglect or elder abuse for any purpose of law; or
  • (b) Provide the basis for the appointment of a guardian or conservator.

Can the really say this?!!  Does the provision of these broad and sweeping statements pertaining to elders or the disabled address the underlying issue and concern about potential for coercion or exploitation? I don’t believe it does at all – in fact it points out the law’s weaknesses here. Yet the proponents of the initiative denied and discounted any concerns from those who would question putting vulnerable elders at risk of being coerced and exploited.

The statute’s attempt to preempt any claim that another’s encouragement or assistance (I can think of several different dangerous scenarios off the top of my head) or “helping” someone with availing themselves of MAID would not constitute elder abuse, coercion, undue influence, or some other improper activity is shocking to me.  The fact remains that there are a lot of elders who are not in good health who could easily be convinced to use MAID.  Will the doctors be sensitive to this? Will they have the training and the resources to detect the “big picture” of what an exploiter may be attempting to gain from an elder who is simply trying to use MAID?  These questions trouble me.

A recent case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Gross v. Switzerland, involved a Swiss national who sought physician assisted suicide on the grounds that she was old and adversely affected by the continued decline of her faculties.  Previous ECHR decisions concerned the assisted suicide for persons who were seriously ill.   Turns out there was a Swiss woman who did not have a serious illness but she had simply grown tired of living in her octogenarian body.

The concern about aging and quality of life is real and not imagined, especially based on this (quality of life) being one of the top reasons for Oregonians choosing death.  It reminds me of the statistics about victims of elder abuse – that they tend to have their lives shortened by such abuse.  Our statute would seem to affirm that the life-shortening on quality of life grounds is legitimate and simply a matter of one’s own “choosing.”  It validates what many of us suspect, that if things don’t look like they will get any better for us, we might as well give it up and cut our losses.  I’m thinking of a well written New Yorker article from June 22, 2015 entitled “The Death Treatment: when should people with a non-terminal illness be helped to die?”  I’m back to my concern stated in my previous post about the power we have given over to our doctors, who now determine whether a person suffers from a terminal illness and is otherwise entitled to seek MAID.  In Colorado, our law defines self-administration, but the statute has no explicit requirement that an individual self-administer.  We don’t have to “jump” to any conclusions here – the path is just a baby step from self-administration to administration with some assistance.

So if we only think there exists a requirement of self-administration, then the line between a doctor prescribing MAID and the “delivery” of the drugs either through self-administration or with assistance (albeit often in the guise of encouragement) of others is a thin one indeed.  I quote from The New Yorker article here:

The laws seem to have created a new conception of suicide as a medical treatment, stripped of its tragic dimensions. Patrick Wyffels, a Belgian family doctor, told me that the process of performing euthanasia, which he does eight to ten times a year, is “very magical.” But he sometimes worries about how his own values might influence a patient’s decision to die or to live. “Depending on communication techniques, I might lead a patient one way or the other,” he said. In the days before and after the procedure, he finds it difficult to sleep. “You spend seven years studying to be a doctor, and all they do is teach you how to get people well—and then you do the opposite,” he told me. “I am afraid of the power that I have in that moment.”

I am concerned that what the End of Life Options Act appears to offer folks is freedom of choice, but it is really more about the giving away of more power to our doctors as well as making segments of our population even more vulnerable to coercion.  More later!

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

 

Dementia and Its Disproportionate Impact on Women

Denver Elder Law

Italian Doors

I read with interest Heather Snyder, Ph.D.’s blog post from December 28, 2016, titled “Alzheimer’s Falls More Heavily on Women Than on Men.”  She is Senior Director of Medical and Scientific Operations at the Alzheimer’s Association and suggests that effective approaches to preventing, diagnosing and treating Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia (I collectively refer to these as AD for convenience) will likely be tailored to a variety of factors which include genetics, hormones and lifestyle – which involve gender.

The National Institute on Aging observes that Alzheimer’s disease is currently ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, but recent estimates indicate that the disorder may rank third, just behind heart disease and cancer, as a cause of death for older people.

Awareness of this important detail is lagging! According to an Alzheimer’s Association blog post, women in their 60s are about twice as likely to develop AD than are breast cancer.  That 1 in 6 chance for a woman to develop AD at 65 compares with a 1 in 11 chance for men.  A recent study shows that a person with a particular gene variant, ApoE4, which both men and women may carry, poses a markedly higher risk of the disease to women than men.

Observation, as anecdotal evidence, might suggest that because women tend to live a few years longer than men, they are more likely to have dementia, but this doesn’t hold water.  Dementia, and AD in particular, is a disease that tends to last a number of years and the majority of person affected by the disease are older, er. . .  old – meaning 60 “or better.”  The number of people affected by early-onset AD is less than 5% of all persons affected and most of those persons have the familial AD.  But what causes AD in the remainder of the persons with early-onset  AD and the vast majority of older persons diagnosed by the disease remains unknown.

You might have heard the news in late November about a highly touted AD drug, which had looked promising in clinical trials, showed little promise to significantly slow the decline of dementia caused by the buildup of amyloid plaques as indicative AD.  The latest difficulties will certainly move this field forward and trials of another amyloid-targeting medication are due later this year.

Here is a video about a Swedish photographer’s project, Into Oblivion, which shows poignant pictures of French residents (mostly women) living with AD behind locked doors.  Yes, there is French spoken in the video, but the pictures speak for themselves.  In our country of course, most of us don’t refer to this living arrangement as a “protective unit” or “lockdown,” we choose instead to refer to it as “memory care,” as if living in a secure unit implied care for a failing memory!  It raises the ethical issue about whether confinement is care.

I’ll be writing more on those ethical discussions surrounding care of persons with AD.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Obstacles to Successful Elderhood: Skilled Nursing Care

denver elder law

Dome of Aspiration

 

I’m returning to the theme I introduced a couple months back about successful elderhood and its obstacles.  Today I’m looking at institutionalized care of American elders and in particular the costs versus care conundrum.

I recently came across two unrelated articles in the space of a single day and immediately saw a connection.  The first was this article from the New York Times, about the privatization of InnovAge, formerly a not-for-profit (which used to be known as Total Longterm Care) in the Denver area and the second article from the ABA Journal, about how the imposition of routine fines having little or no impact on deterring abuses at skilled nursing facilities.

Keep in mind that skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes) are some of the most regulated business in this country – regulated by both the feds through Medicare and Medicaid, as well as by state licensing and regulatory authorities.  Do these regulatory regimes lead to better outcomes?   The ABA Journal article would tend to weigh in on the “no” side of this answer. . .  That seems to be an open question, particularly in light of the shocking circumstances surrounding the death of a young mentally ill woman in SNF care – Letasha Mims, as described in the ABA Journal article above.

As an elder law attorney, I am aware of and often share the information collected by different state and local agencies about violations at nursing homes.  In case you’re wondering about Colorado nursing homes, here is a link to the CDPHE’s page about licensing and deficiencies.   Medicare has a handy tool to compare nursing homes here. You can enter a zip code and compare facilities quickly.

The story of Letasha Mims, however, makes me question the helpfulness and accuracy of that information collected by our regulatory agencies.   But the lingering question is a difficult one: when an elder or disabled person lives in a SNF which is a for-profit business, there is a nagging question about the adequacy of staffing at those facilities.    I am thinking of a recent book I came across – Elder Care Journey, (published in 2016 by SUNY Press) by Laura Katz Olson.  What Olson confronted in managing her elderly her mother’s care is something that faces each of us who has ever had to make the difficult choice of arranging for the care of a family member, like an elder parent, in a skilled nursing facility.

Olson writes eloquently about the personal journey of getting the best care for her frail mother, but what is most relevant for this discussion is the penultimate chapter of the book entitled “Peeling the Onion.”  In that chapter she looks at the system of care for elders including skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes).   She writes that the 2012 statistics indicate that sixty-nine percent of SNFs are for-profit organizations (mostly chains), but she reports that there is a recent trend toward private equity firms (like the one which is reported to have purchased InnovAge above) buying SNFs.  Olson notes that private equity firms have goals that include making quick profit so the business can be sold for a profit within five years; typically have protections against liability for substandard care which relate to the individual facility and not the chain which is the parent of the SNF; and private equity firms, unlike publicly traded companies, have little transparency about the inner workings of their assets, profits and ownership.  These important details don’t just seem to be at odds with providing adequate care, and they will likely contribute to a burgeoning number of substandard care.

Olson quotes at 152 (a 2001 study in the American Journal of Public Health) that “rates of severe deficiencies in investor-owned facilities were 40.5 percent higher than at nonprofit homes and 35.8 percent higher than at public homes.”  What will the numbers be for the present situation? This will likely be a topic of a later post. P Perhaps a relevant question for an adult child or anyone researching placement at a skilled nursing facility is the simple one of whether it is a for-profit facility and if it is, whether it is publicly-held or owned by a private equity firm.  Profit maximization for investors does not seem to be consistent with providing good care for our frail elders.

I focus on the SNF because of the institutionalized nature of such a facility and the relatively high level of medical care which is supposed to be provided.  And if you were hoping that Medicare was somehow an equalizer when it comes to insurance care for elders . . .  think again!  There is a growing shortage of doctors, particularly primary care physicians for elders, who take new Medicare patients.  For those elders in hospitals who are suffering from terminal conditions, here is a recent article from Health News, which addresses the shortage in hospitals of palliative and hospice care medical teams who are trained to discuss end-of-life issues, effectively manage patients’ pain and otherwise address the emotional and spiritual needs of those at the end of their lives.  There just isn’t enough money in providing palliative care under our Medicare program of incentivizing big intervention and the low-tech, high touch, human-fueled intervention of hospice and palliative care providers.  This reminds me of Atul Gawande’s observations in Being Mortal and Katy Butler’s book about her father and his health crises, Knocking on Heaven’s Door.

And what about Medicaid, that government long term care program that many people are curious about for their elder family members . . . Some studies have demonstrated worse outcomes for those Medicaid patients – whose doctors receive only a fraction of what other better insured patients receive.  Medicare patients didn’t seem to fare much better.  In case you’re wondering whether this divide continues, here’s an article from last month about worse outcomes for Medicare and Medicaid myocardial infarction patients.  We are spending money for these Medicare and Medicaid services, yet so many of the needs of the people receiving these services goes unmet . . .  what gives?!

Sorry, this post appears to be largely about obstacles, but perhaps they are placed before us so as to clarify what it is we need to fix for our loved ones and for ourselves.  Er, maybe this is an opportunity after all – but only if we make it one.  One thing is certain – it will not be an easy fix.

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Successful Elderhood and Its Obstacles

littleton elder law

A Sideways Approach

 

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

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

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

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

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

A heartbreak shakes the yellow leaves from

The branch of the heart

So fresh leaves can go on growing . . .

Heartbreak pulls up the roots of the old happiness

So a new ecstasy can stroll in from beyond.

Heartbreak pulls up all withered, crooked roots

so no root can stay hidden.

Heartbreak may pull many things from the heart

But in return it will lavish kingdoms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace out!

©Barbara Cashman  2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Jefferson County Senior Law Day – Saturday June 13, 2015

Italian Arch

Italian Arch

This is the season for the annual Senior Law Days, co-sponsored by the Colorado Bar Association.  There are a number of events taking place throughout the state, but this post is about the Jefferson County Senior Law Day this Saturday, June 13, 2015.  Yours truly will be presenting once again on the topic of Financial Powers of Attorney and Conservatorships.  My presentation is one of fourteen different topics on which presentations will be made in three different sessions beginning at 9:30 a.m. and finishing at 12:40 p.m.

This year’s Senior Law Day event is hosted by the Colorado Christian University located in Lakewood.  Senior Law Day is a great way for elders, adult children, caregivers and others to get good information about common concerns with aging and preventing financial abuse as well as making important plans about end-of-life health care decisions.  There are also a number of vendors who attend these events and several not-for-profits that assist elders.  It’s an excellent way for the curious to get some basic information from reliable sources and learn about community resources for elders and their caregivers.

Some of the other topics for presentation include: “A Consumer’s Guide to Choosing Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities;” “Scams and Elder Abuse;” “Probate: Perspective From the Bench;” “Estate Planning Basics: Wills and Trusts;” and “Medicare Update.”  Don’t forget that there are also “Ask an Elder Law Attorney” sessions available for questions folks have for  the elder law attorneys who volunteer for these sessions.

If you are interested in attending a senior law day, but can’t attend this one, the annual Denver Senior Law Day will be held at the Denver Mart on October 17, 2015.  If you’re interested in more information about these kinds of topics, you can check out the pdf version of the 2014 Senior Law Handbook published by the CBA here.  Finally, don’t forget that there is an established “ask an elder law attorney” program at the Jefferson County Justice Center, in Golden, Colorado.  That’s where I will be Friday morning! Get more information about this service here.

©Barbara Cashman  2015   www.DenverElderLaw.org