The impossible case of assisted death for people with dementia

Is it too much to ask people to follow through on previously expressed wishes for assisted death? An expert report suggests it may well be.

Dying with Dignity Canada’s CEO Shanaaz Gokool (centre) sits with Barb Brzezici (right), an assisted dying advocate whose mother died after a long battle with dementia, in Toronto, April 14, 2016.

When Canada legalized medically assisted death in 2016, the legislation excluded a trio of particularly difficult circumstances, committing to studying them in detail over the following two years. Those reports—on advance requests, mature minors and cases where a mental disorder is the sole diagnosis—were authored by three panels of eminent experts from a variety of disciplines, and in spite of the resolutely neutral and delicate language in the documents, they make for deeply compelling reading.

Of the three complex circumstances, it is advance requests—which would allow someone to set out terms for their medically assisted death, to be acted on at a future point when they no longer have decision-making capacity because of dementia, for example—that have drawn the greatest interest and agitation for change.

The working groups behind the reports were not asked for recommendations, but rather to provide detailed information on how other countries have grappled with these issues, what a modified Canadian law would need to take into account and how fields like ethics, philosophy, health care and sociology might help us puzzle through these issues.

And while they explicitly take no position on what the government should do, a close reading of the evidence the expert panel gathered makes it virtually impossible to imagine that advance requests for Canadians could exist and be acted upon.

That is not because the will isn’t there; many people with dementia or other illnesses that will eventually consume their cognitive capacity profoundly desire some sense of deliverance and control of their ending, for reasons that are easy to understand.

It is not because requiring help with every task of daily living, or being unable to communicate one’s thoughts or conjure up the names of loved ones is not a real form of suffering; for many people, that is just as intolerable as the spectre of a physically painful death.

And putting advance requests into practice doesn’t seem prohibitive because people who want them would be unsure about where to draw their line; indeed, that threshold is glaringly obvious for those to whom it matters most, and robust documentation and communication with health care providers and family members could provide much-needed clarity.

Rather, the reason it seems virtually impossible that Canada could have—and, crucially, use—advance requests is because it is simply too heavy a burden for those tasked with deciding when to follow through on the previously expressed wishes of the person before them, once that person can no longer meaningfully speak up for themselves.

“Evidence from international perspectives suggests there may be marked differences between stated opinion on hypothetical scenarios and actual practice,” the report notes. In other words, while people generally understand why others want advance requests and broadly support their availability, almost no one can bring themselves to act on them.

“It’s to be expected that these will be heavy decisions to be made, and I’m not sure that we would want them to be light, either,” says Jennifer Gibson, chair of the working group that examined advance requests for medical assistance in dying (MAID), and director of the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics.

Gibson’s group and the two other panels that examined MAID for mature minors and for people with a mental illness were chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps and convened by the Council of Canadian Academies, a non-profit organization that “supports independent, science-based, authoritative expert assessments to inform public policy development.”

What is striking in reading the report on advance requests is how profound and deeply human it is, and how quickly the debate becomes almost dizzyingly existential—much more so even than the issue of assisted death in general. “There’s this human experience that we’re all sharing. We’re all in that together—that we are mortal, that we will die, that we will lose loved ones in our lifetime,” Gibson says. “That unavoidable vulnerability sort of encapsulates a lot of these policy and clinical and legal discussions that are unfolding.”

The report delves into concepts like the meaning of personal autonomy; how we care for those we love by shouldering the responsibility of making decisions when they no longer can; the concept of suffering and who defines it; how we weigh the interests of the patient against what their doctor and family are asked to handle; and which safeguards might help reassure those gathered at the bedside who have to make a decision.

“We can think about it as burden, but it’s not just about burden—it’s also about care….there is no question that burden is part of what comes with uncertainty. These are excruciating decisions that someone has to make on behalf of someone who is no longer decisionally capable,” says Benjamin Berger, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University and a member of the working group. “But a way of thinking about the burden is also, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’”

And a deeply conceptual sense of the self is central to the report: if in the present, you decide on and record a series of conditions under which you would no longer want to be alive, and you later become incapacitated, are your present and future selves the same person given how profoundly you’ve changed? If, once you are incapacitated, you appear perfectly content or even outright resistant to the MAID procedure you once requested, which version of you and which set of wishes and desires takes precedence, and why?

“Under what conditions might we expect that somebody would so radically lose those core compass points, if they lost capacity to make certain types of decisions, that they would become an entirely new person?” Gibson asks. “It is an existential question.”

And the report puzzles at length over this: can you really know from your present vantage point what your future self will want, how you might suffer or find joy in whatever your life looks like over the next horizon?

Research demonstrates that we are not very good at estimating what our quality of life would be if we fell ill or had some form of disability. This phenomenon, known as “the disability paradox,” is “pervasive,” the report notes. “The underestimation of quality of life by able-bodied or healthy people, rather than its overestimation by those living with a disability or chronic illness, drives the disability paradox,” the expert panel notes.

But again, in the debate over advance requests, this circles back to a deep concept of self: even if you are completely content once you are incapacitated, how much does that matter if your past, competent self loathed the notion of spending years in a long-term care facility needing help with every daily activity?

“Simply pointing to the idea that autonomy is respected and autonomy is important fails to wholly solve the most difficult issues in this field,” says Berger. “The question everybody is trying to ask is, understanding that autonomy is a core issue, what is the right method of ensuring that we respect autonomy?”

But for all of these sprawling legal, philosophical and ethical conundrums, it is when the report explores the experience of other jurisdictions with more experience practicing MAID or more liberal laws than Canada’s that the true difficulty in putting advance requests into practice for people with dementia becomes obvious.

Just four countries—Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg and the Netherlands—allow advance requests for euthanasia in some form. However, “nearly all” of the information we have about advance requests in practice comes from the Netherlands, the report notes, because of “lack of implementation experience” in Colombia and Luxembourg, and very little detailed data available from Belgium.

The 2002 Dutch law that formally permitted the practice of euthanasia that had been going on for decades allowed for written advance requests for anyone aged 16 and older, in which they must clearly lay out what they consider unbearable suffering and when they would want euthanasia performed. Those would apply when people could no longer express their wishes and would have “the same status as an oral request made by a person with capacity,” the expert panel reports.

But while the annual reports from RTE, the regional review committees that govern euthanasia in the Netherlands, do not report the number of deaths due to advance requests, they do show that between 2002 and 2017, “all or most” of the patients who received euthanasia due to suffering from dementia were in the early stages of the disease and still had capacity to consent.

A study of 434 Dutch physicians between 2007 and 2008 found that while 110 had treated a patient with dementia who had an advance request, only three doctors had performed euthanasia in such a case (one doctor helped three people to die); all five of those patients too were “deemed competent and able to communicate their wishes.” The paper concluded that because doctors could not communicate with the patients otherwise, “Advance directives for euthanasia are never adhered to in the Netherlands in the case of people with advanced dementia, and their role in advance care planning and end-of-life care of people with advanced dementia is limited.”

Indeed, in 2017, a group of more than 460 Dutch geriatricians, psychiatrists and euthanasia specialists co-signed a public statement committing to never “provide a deadly injection to a person with advanced dementia on the basis of an advance request.”

And while family members of people with dementia support the idea of MAID if their loved one had an advance request, when it comes to acting on that, the majority—63 per cent in one study and 73 per cent in another—asked a doctor not to follow the request and actually provide euthanasia, but instead to simply forego life-sustaining treatment. “Some of the reasons given by relatives were that they were not ready for euthanasia, they did not feel the patient was suffering, and they could not ask for euthanasia when their loved one still had enjoyable moments,” the report explains.

Other Dutch studies show distinct contours in opinions on advance requests in cases of advanced dementia; the general public and family members of people with dementia view it more permissively than nurses and doctors, and doctors are most restrictive of all. “The authors of these studies hypothesized that this could be due to the different responsibilities of each group,” the working group wrote. “Physicians actually have to carry out a patient’s request, and when a patient cannot consent, this act comes with a heavy emotional burden.”

Here in Canada, the federal government has said it has no plans to alter the law to permit advance requests, even in the face of intense interest and pressure around the issue in a particular context a few months ago. In November, Audrey Parker, a vivacious Halifax woman with Stage 4 breast cancer, died by MAID two months earlier than she wanted to, because she feared cancer’s incursion into her brain might render her unable to provide final consent for the procedure if she waited. Parker spent her final months as the highly visible and compelling face of people like her, who are approved for MAID but forced to seek it earlier than they want to—or reduce badly needed pain medications—for fear they will lose the lucidity required to consent.

When it comes to concerns about determining when a patient with an advance request is ready for MAID, how clear their conditions are and whether they may have changed their mind if they can no longer communicate, the report suggest that cases like Parker’s would be the simplest and least controversial in which to permit advance requests. “These issues would likely not arise if a person wrote a request after they were already approved for MAID,” the working group notes. “In this case, they would be able to confirm their current desire for MAID themselves, and may even choose a date for the procedure.”

But when it comes to dementia—the condition which seems to inspire the strongest public desire for advance requests, and for which the disease trajectory is longer and more uncertain—the situation is much more difficult.

It is rarely useful to frame a public policy debate in terms of factions of winners and losers. But with the notion of advance requests for people with dementia, it is difficult to avoid the sense that in order for one group to get what it very understandably wants—a sense of control and escape from an existence that is at least as intolerable to some people as physical suffering—another group must shoulder a different sort of crushing burden—namely, the medical practitioners tasked with actually performing MAID and the family members or substitute decision makers who would have some role in sanctioning the procedure based on their loved one’s recorded wishes.

But Gibson argues that the solution to a heavy burden is not to make it light, but rather to ask what supports and measures would be required to bear it if such a thing were available in Canada. “And some members of the panel were really doubtful that anything would be sufficient to bridge those uncertainties, whereas others on the panel said, ‘I think we’ve got some experience with this, I think we could,’” she says. “There’s not going to be some external adjudicator to tell us we got it right.”

And while there is something distinctly fraught in decisions about MAID, she points out that families all over the country contend every day with life-and-death medical treatment decisions behalf of the people they love.

“It’s part of the ways in which we express love and caring for our loved ones, is we care for them even when they’re unable to care for themselves,” Gibson says. “We ought not to be surprised that these decisions are burdensome. And at the same time, they’re burdensome precisely because of these human connections that we have.”

The immense weight of these choices, then, is the price of admission for the bonds we share, and for the meaning we assign to life itself.

Complete Article HERE!

A Graceful Exit: Taking Charge at the End of Life

How can we break the silence about what happens when we’re dying?

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I was standing in my cubicle, a 24-year-old fact-checker envisioning a publishing career of glamor and greatness, suddenly shaking as I read the document my mother had mailed. It detailed her wish that I promise never to keep her or my father alive with artificial respirators, IV-drip nourishment, or anything else she deemed “extreme.”

I was horrified, and slightly angry. My mom was a 54-year-old literature professor who’d spent the 1970s eating whole grains and downing vitamins. She was healthier than anyone I knew. Why get so dramatic now? It seemed ghoulish, not to mention premature. But I scrawled my signature at the bottom of the page and shoved it into an envelope, my mother’s voice in my head, prodding me along.

As with the whole wheat and vitamins, my mother—back in 1990—was onto something long before it became conventional wisdom. But these days, Americans’ approach to aging and death is rapidly evolving, pushed both by the numbers and the grim reality behind them: In 40 years, 19 million Americans will be over 85, all at high risk of losing the ability to care for themselves or dwindling away because of organ failure, dementia, or chronic illness. (The days of a sudden fatal heart attack are fading; by 2008, the death rate from coronary heart disease was down 72 percent from what it was in 1950.)

So while many seniors now live vigorous lives well into their 80s, no one gets a free pass. Eating right and exercising may merely forestall an inevitable and ruinously expensive decline. By 2050, the cost of dementia care alone is projected to total more than $1 trillion.

My mom’s decision to face her end came not from any of these facts, but from the nightmare of watching her own mother’s angry decline in a New York nursing home. “You’re all a bunch of rotten apples,” Grandma growled at visitors, the words erupting from her otherwise mute lips. And there she sat for three years, waiting to die. “Why can’t you just get me some pills so I can go?” she would sometimes wail.

The slide toward death was only slightly less awful for my father’s mother. Grandma Ada would greet me with a dazed smile—though it was impossible to know whether she recognized the person standing in front of her wheelchair—before thrashing with involuntary spasms. An aide would come to restrain her, and then my dad and I would leave.

This cannot be right. This cannot be what we want for our parents—or ourselves.

In denial

Despite our myriad technological advances, the final stages of life in America still exist as a twilight purgatory where too many people simply suffer and wait, having lost all power to have any effect on the world or their place in it. No wonder we’re loathe to confront this. The Patient Self-Determination Act, passed in 1990, guarantees us the right to take some control over our final days by creating advance directives like the one my mother made me sign, yet fewer than 50 percent of patients have done so. This amazes me.

“We have a death taboo in our country,” says Barbara Coombs Lee, whose advocacy group, Compassion & Choices, pushed Washington and Oregon to pass laws allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending medication for the terminally ill. “Americans act as if death is optional. It’s all tied into a romance with technology, against accepting ourselves as mortal.”

For proof of this, consider that among venture capitalists the cutting edge is no longer computers, but life-extending technologies. Peter Thiel, the 45-year-old who started PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook, has thrown in with a $3.5 million bet on the famed anti-aging researcher Aubrey de Grey. And Thiel is no outlier. As of 2010, about 400 companies were working to reverse human aging.

Talking about death

The reason for this chronic avoidance of aging and death is not simply that American culture equals youth culture. It’s that we grow up trained to believe in self-determination—which is precisely what’s lost with our current approach to the process of dying. But what if every time you saw your doctor for a checkup, you’d have to answer a few basic questions about your wishes for the end of life? What if planning for those days became customary—a discussion of personal preferences—instead of paralyzing?

Dr. Peter Saul, a physician in Australia, endeavored to test this approach by interviewing hundreds of dying patients at Newcastle Hospital in Melbourne about the way they’d like to handle their lead-up to death—and how they felt discussing it. He was startled to find that 98 percent said they loved being asked. They appreciated the chance to think out loud on the subject. They thought it should be standard practice.

“Most people don’t want to be dead, but I think most people want to have some control over how their dying process proceeds,” Saul says in his widely viewed TED lecture “Let’s Talk About Dying.”

Nevertheless, when his study was complete, Newcastle went back to business as usual, studiously ignoring the elephant in the room, acting as if these patients would eventually stand up and walk out, whistling. “The cultural issue had reasserted itself,” Saul says drily.

Slow medicine

It’s hardly surprising that medical personnel would drive this reexamination of our final days. Coombs Lee, who spent 25 years as a nurse and physician’s assistant, considers her current advocacy work a form of atonement for the misery she visited on terminal patients in the past—forcing IV tubes into collapsed veins, cracking open ribs for heart resuscitation.

“I had one elderly patient who I resuscitated in the I.C.U., and he was livid,” she says. “He shook his fist at me, ‘Barbara, don’t you ever do that again!’ We made a deal that the next time it happened we would just keep him comfortable and let him go, and that’s what we did.”

It bears pointing out, however, that many doctors dislike discussing the ultimate question—whether patients should be allowed to choose their moment of death by legally obtaining life-ending medication. Several have told me that the debate over this overshadows more important conversations about how to give meaning to what remains of life. In Europe, the term of art is euthanasia—the practice of injecting patients with life-ending drugs—which remains illegal in the United States. But whatever the method, many physicians would prefer to avoid the entire topic.

“I don’t think euthanasia matters,” Saul says. “I think it’s a sideshow.”

While arguments flare around this, Dennis McCullough, a geriatrician in New Hampshire, has noticed a quieter answer taking shape among his own patients. Many are themselves retired doctors and nurses, and they have taken charge of their last days by carefully mulling the realities of aggressive medical intervention. Rather than grasping at every possible procedure to stave off the inevitable, they focus instead on accepting it. In place of scheduling never-ending doctor’s visits, they concentrate on connecting with others.

McCullough has termed their philosophy “slow medicine,” and his book about it, My Mother, Your Mother, is starting to attract attention around the world.

“If you go to a doctor to get a recommendation for having some procedure, that’s probably what’s going to happen. Doctors are driven by revenue,” he said in an interview. “But many of the things that we can do to older people don’t yield the results we’ve promised—medicine can’t fix everything. ‘Slow medicine’ is being more thoughtful about that and staying away from decisions based on fear.”

This attitude is gaining traction. In November, several hundred physicians plan to gather in Italy to discuss slow medicine (a name lifted from the similarly anti-tech slow food movement), and McCullough’s book is being translated into Korean and Japanese.

“What’s the last gift you’re going to give your family? In a sense, it’s knowing how to die,” he says. “Staying alive is not necessarily the goal.”

Death with dignity

I consider my mother-in-law, a practicing Catholic and right-leaning political moderate, a barometer for this slowly shifting national consciousness. She is in her mid-60s and healthy, but has already written directives specifying that Bach be played at her bedside and perfume scent the air, if her health deteriorates to the point where she cannot say so herself.

Personally, I’m relieved. Unlike my 24-year-old self, I now find it comforting to plan these things, rather than living in fear of them. But I would still be mired in denial were it not for former Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, whom I wrote about in 2008 when he was pushing for a Death with Dignity law and I was a newspaper reporter.

Shaking with Parkinson’s disease, he tried to spark conversation about legalizing physician-assisted aid-in-dying while attending a luncheon in downtown Seattle with a small circle of business friends: “I have a real tough time understanding why people like us, who’ve made tough decisions all their lives—buying, selling, hiring—do not have the right to make such a fundamental decision as this,” Gardner said, referencing his wish to take life-ending medication when his illness becomes unbearable, to gather his family and die when he chooses.

The men sipped their soup. They did not approve. They did not even want to discuss it. Yet that stony opposition—which mirrors the position of the Catholic church, groups representing the disabled, and hospice workers dedicated to maintaining “studied neutrality”—has, ironically, begun to nudge talk of death into the open.

Gardner, to my mind, had articulated the central concern: Wherever you come down on end-of-life decisions, the question is one of control—and who is going to have it over our bodies at the last moments.

Thus far, only Washington and Oregon have passed Death with Dignity laws, though a voter initiative is scheduled for the November election in Massachusetts. In Montana, the courts have ruled that physicians who prescribe life-ending medication for the terminally ill are not subject to homicide statutes; in New Mexico, two doctors have filed a suit challenging prohibitions against “assisting suicide.” And in Hawaii, four doctors willing to prescribe life-ending medication have geared up for a similar fight.

Yet after 15 years of legalized aid-in-dying in Oregon, the biggest news is how seldom people actually invoke this right. Since 1997, fewer than 600 terminal patients have swallowed doctor-prescribed drugs hastening their ends, though 935 had prescriptions written. Did 335 people change their minds at the last minute? Decide in their final days to cling to life as long as possible?

If so, that might be the best thing to come out of Compassion & Choices’ campaign: a peace of mind that allows us to soldier on, knowing we can control the manner of our death, even if we never choose to exercise that power.

My own immediate family ranges in age from 3 to 84, and I envision a dinner in the not-too-distant future when we will gather, talk about how to make my parents’ final journey as meaningful as all that has come before, and raise a glass to the next stage. Maybe at Thanksgiving.

Complete Article HERE!

For people with dementia, a fight for the right to die

The Alzheimer Society of Canada is reconsidering its position on advanced requests for assisted death, amidst a difficult debate about the rights of those with dementia

by

Ron Posno was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment—a precursor to dementia—in 2016, and soon after, the London, Ont., resident re-wrote his will. He already had a Do Not Resuscitate order in place, and to this he added instructions for the niece who was his substitute decision maker that at a specific point in the progress of his illness, she was to seek medical assistance in dying on his behalf.

The eight conditions that Posno identified as signalling the proper time for his death are like a photographic negative that also reveals what he considers a life worth living. When I am unable to recognize and respond to family and friends; when I frequently experience hallucinations, paranoia or acute depression; when I become routinely incontinent; when I am unable to eat, clean or dress myself without assistance: that is when I want it to be over.

But then Posno’s niece, a lawyer in Toronto, informed him that an advance request like this for medical assistance in dying (MAID) was against the law and she would have no ability to act on it once he could no longer consent.

Posno had assumed that this request was basically an extension of his DNR: a statement of his desires for medical treatment in a given set of circumstances. He found it incomprehensible that he could legally state that he did not want CPR and the instruction would be followed if he were unconscious with a DNR in place, but in the face of an illness that would eventually render him unable to provide informed consent, he couldn’t request MAID on behalf of a carefully delineated future version of himself.

“These eight conditions are like signposts on the road to decline. I am declining. My mind, literally, is being destroyed on a daily basis. There’s nothing I can do about it, there’s nothing anybody can do about it… It’s just disappearing,” the 79-year-old says. “I do not want to live like that. I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to inflict it upon the people who care for me.”

MAID is “likely the most compelling piece of health legislation” Canada has crafted in decades, he says, “And yet it fails, and it fails primarily because it discriminates against people with dementia.” Posno has spent the last year waging a vocal campaign of advocacy and agitation against what he sees as a galling infringement on the rights of people with dementia.

Under Canadian law, MAID is available to adults with a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” whose natural death is “reasonably foreseeable,” and medical professionals must obtain informed consent from the patient just before administering the life-ending medications. In the late stages of dementia, people no longer have the capacity to provide that consent, and there is no provision in the legislation to work around that.

Of the three special circumstances that were excluded from Canada’s assisted dying law in 2016 and set aside for further study—advance requests, mature minors, and cases where the sole underlying condition is mental illness—advance requests are, by far, the circumstance that has generated the greatest interest, demand for change and fraught contemplation.

And rising rates of dementia in an aging Canadian population, the very nature of a condition that inexorably means an eventual loss of competency, and many people’s knowledge, fear and deep antipathy toward the idea of lingering in the later stages of the disease has centred much of the debate about advance requests in the world of dementia.

To Posno, the absence of advance requests in Canada—they are available in some form in just four countries worldwide, and even then employed with vanishing rarity in cases of dementia—is an appalling omission that deprives him of the rights afforded other Canadians under the Carter decision in which the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the prohibition against assisted death.

“MAID was designed deliberately to exclude people with dementia because of this general naive and very biased notion that people with dementia are vulnerable,” he says. The refrain he hears again and again to explain the opposition to advance requests is, “We must protect the vulnerable.” Posno’s voice is tipped with acid when he responds: “I’m not vulnerable.”

The Alzheimer Society of Canada has been one of the prime targets of his advocacy campaign over the last year, due to a formal position statement in which the organization opposed advance requests. “The Alzheimer Society of Canada believes that because we cannot predict future suffering, providing advance consent for MAID should not be possible for people with dementia,” the statement said, in part. “The Alzheimer Society believes that people with dementia need to be safeguarded as they will be extremely vulnerable at the end of their life.”

That position statement was released right before assisted death was legalized in Canada and in place until February 2019, when the ASC pulled it for review. An updated version will be released mid-summer. And in fact, the re-examination within the organization of its approach to MAID and advance requests began well before Posno publicly raised his concerns.

“When I arrived at the Alzheimer Society a few years ago, it’s the first question I asked: ‘How did we come up with this and why did we end up there?’” says Pauline Tardif, who took over as CEO in the spring of 2017. “It can be perceived in a negative way as non-supportive of people who may want to self-advocate or have authority over their affairs right to the end of life. For the same reason Ron is questioning it…I had the same question.”

The ASC arrived at its original position through consultation with experts in health care, ethics and law, as well as people living with dementia. The institutional soul-searching that went into that process—and the revision currently underway—reflects both the profoundly difficult issues surrounding advance requests broadly, as well as the difficult fit between MAID and the society’s core missions.

The stigma of dementia is one of the most common problems her organization hears about, Tardif says, and people with dementia often say they feel like the progress of their illness gets artificially accelerated when people assume they can no longer drive, or talk about them instead of to them.

She worries that people with dementia may internalize that stigma, too, and if advance requests were available, some may opt for MAID out of a warped sense of what their future life will be like, or fear of being a burden. “The fact is that many people with dementia lead very meaningful, active lives for quite some time after diagnosis,” she says. “The fear, or the unknown, or the projection or the assumption that people don’t have quality of life or have meaningful life—however an individual diagnoses that—makes it challenging for some.”

Another of the major concerns of the ASC mirrors one heard in the palliative care community: their mission is advocating for more supports and better care, so they worry MAID could inadvertently become a sort of societal escape hatch that undermines the quest for more resources for overwhelmed caregivers. “So instead of society having the reflex of supporting that family through their dementia journey, that could be an easy out,” Tardif says.

One of the most existential concerns around advance requests is the unknowable quality of the inner life and desires of people in late-stage dementia. Tardif comes to this with very personal and recent experience: in January, her mother died after living with dementia for a number of years. “Would she have wanted to live in this way? If I had asked her 30 years ago, she would have said ‘No way.’ I know this,” Tardif says. “But would I have been able to make the decision to say, ‘Oh no, this is the time where she would have said no’? Personally, I could not have done that, because I wouldn’t have known if that was last year or next month or even right to end of life.”

More than anything, it was the newness of Canada’s MAID regime and the unknown territory into which the country was venturing that caused the ASC to adopt a policy that may have appeared “overly cautious or even protective,” Tardif acknowledges. “It was well-informed, but at the time, the law was just passing, and I would say that our instinct, if I can call it that, was to ensure that we took the right time to look through the complexities of the file,” she says.

The new position the society will adopt this summer will not advocate for or against a particular policy, but rather focus on providing information and support for people with dementia, regardless of their choices.

The Liberal government has said it has no plans to re-jig the law to include advance requests, with then-Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould saying in November that the government is confident its legislation “finds the right balance in terms of being able to access medical assistance in dying, protecting the autonomy of individuals to make the appropriate decisions for themselves, as well as protecting vulnerable individuals.”

So for now, the debate is purely a theoretical one, but given the profound issues at play, it is unlikely to fade away. “It may be impossible to square, right?” Tardif says. “We may need to accept that it is a very complex onion that we need to peel back slowly.”

Jim Mann, of Surrey, B.C., comes to the issue with similar experience to Posno, but he has arrived at a very different conclusion. Mann has observed firsthand and twice over the stigma attached to dementia: His mother was in the late stages of dementia in 2007 when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, at the age of 58. He’s seen how people will ask a caregiver how a person with dementia is doing while the person is standing right there.

Like Tardif, he worries that people can internalize that stigma and “panic” about their own futures, which is why he is not in favour of advance requests. “Some people—I think personally it’s probably a fair number of people—are just afraid of getting to the end of the dementia journey, the idea that you lose your independence, the idea that you might lose your communication skills, the names of your family and so on, just that idea is incomprehensible,” he says. “Because of that projection into an unhappy moment or an unhappy situation, then their current vision is one of ‘I won’t go there.’”

Mann has come to think about dementia in terms of the creativity required to live with and work around it. When he realized that loose change was tripping him up at a cash register, for example, he switched to using only bills. He applies that same sense of accommodation to thinking about quality of life and sources of happiness in the latter stages of dementia.

As his mother’s illness progressed, they would often sit in the lounge of her long-term care facility and watch the show through the south-facing windows. Planes took off and landed at a nearby airport, and while his mom called them “the bus,” Mann knew exactly what she meant and it was a shared experience they delighted in. The landscape bloomed into life in the spring and took on a burnished palette in the fall, and they soaked it all in together. “That was joy,” he says. “I like to think you can still bend over and smell a rose; you might not know what it is, but the smell is lovely. Why miss out on that? I just wouldn’t want to.”

But while Mann bases his opposition to advance requests on a clear image he has of the later stages of his own illness—and the sort of adjusted-but-real happiness he believes can be found there—Posno’s equally vivid notion of what lies ahead is precisely why he wants the power to decide on his ending.

“I can talk to you, I can sing songs. You can keep me busy all day colouring a colouring book, I can go to bed every night with a teddy bear. That’s what they do!” he says, his voice leaping an octave in outraged horror. “That’s what’s considered a normal, happy life for a person in that last terminal [stage].”

To Posno, the argument that he won’t be aware of or distressed by his condition then is irrelevant: the Ron of today can see over that horizon and abhors the idea of his future self living it. And similarly, the notion that someone in late-stage dementia might seem contented and free of obvious suffering, and that a substitute decision-maker or doctor might be reluctant to act on an advance request because of that, misses the point.

“My mind will not have changed; my mind has disappeared. They have no right to say I’m happy and I deserve to live. I am not living at that point, I am existing,” he says. “Your life is in your mind, and when your mind goes, you are not alive.”

The chasm between Mann and Posno’s visions of their future, and the ways in which the Alzheimer Society has struggled with this issue, all point to the same truth that underpins the confounding issue of advance requests: How and when you wish to die is, really, about how you want to live.

Complete Article HERE!

After 73 Years of Marriage, This Canadian Couple Chose to Die on Their Own Terms

This is a truly beautiful story about two people dying.

By Hemant Mehta

George and Shirley Brickenden, who are 95 and 94, respectively, decided they didn’t want to wait any longer for death to arrive. They’d been married for 73 years and their bodies weren’t faring so well. Shirley had a heart attack in 2016 and nearly died; she now had rheumatoid arthritis and was in constant pain. George was found passed out, unconscious, on his birthday and his heart was also failing.

Under Canadian law, both of them qualify for what’s known as physician-assisted death. They’re older than 18, Canadian citizens, mentally competent, suffering from a “serious and incurable disease, illness or disability,” and in an “‘advanced state of irreversible decline,’ with enduring and intolerable suffering.” Furthermore, there was no coercion involved. They checked off all the boxes.

And both of them decided to end their lives together, in peace, at the same time last week.

Shortly before 7 p.m., Mrs. Brickenden turned to her husband. “Are you ready?

“Ready when you are,” he replied.

They walked into their bedroom and lay down together, holding hands. The two doctors, one for each patient, inserted intravenous lines into their arms.

Angela rubbed her mom’s feet. [Pamela] rubbed her dad’s. “They smiled, they looked at each other,” Pamela said. Then Mr. Brickenden looked at his children, standing at the end of the bed.

“I love you all,” he said.

This is exactly why the law was passed. Forcing people to live in pain is a form of torture. The Brickendens were able to get their lives in order, say goodbye one last time to their children, and end life hand in hand with the person they love most. If you were to imagine your own perfect death, it would probably look something like that.

And yet there are many religious groups that oppose letting people make that decision because it’s thwarting God’s plan for their lives. They’re so “pro-life,” they would rather see people suffer than die on their own terms. In some cases, like when a dying patient ends up at a Catholic hospital that doesn’t allow the procedure, the result is even more cruelty.

In Canada, however, this is now a legal procedure with sensible hurdles in place to prevent people from abusing it. It was made for situations like these. There may be certain situations where the moral thing to do isn’t always obvious, but this isn’t one of them.

Their mutual obituary is really incredible:

As age and overwhelming infirmities overtook them, on a beautiful spring day, after 73 years of marriage, they toasted each other with family and good champagne, held hands and left this life gently and together, on their own terms. This was their final act of love, hoping their act will pave the way for others who are suffering. They were fully at peace with this decision and had the support of their four devoted children who have always known this was how they wanted it to be when the time came. We are all forever grateful for the compassionate assistance of Dying with Dignity. They have blessed this earth together for 73 years and it’s time for them to bless the stars.

Instead of flowers, they asked for supporters to make donations to Dying with Dignity.

In the United States, death with dignity is only legal in six states and Washington, D.C. That leaves a lot of places where people who are ready to end life are forced to prolong it against their will. That needs to change.

Complete Article HERE!

The way we die will be considered unthinkable 50 years from now

How we treat dying people needs to change.

By

Fifty years ago, a physician was admitted to the hospital with stomach cancer. He wrote down in his own medical chart that he did not want CPR or to be connected to a breathing machine. His wishes were disregarded — he underwent CPR numerous times and was connected to a breathing machine until he died. Back then, not only were people treated in ways they did not want, many patients were also arbitrarily denied potentially lifesaving therapies.

Doctors decided who deserved to live or not: In one New York hospital, doctors put purple stickers on the charts of patients they determined would not receive CPR or other similar measures without the patients’ or their families’ knowledge. Decisions about life and death were subjective and opaque.

End of life care has considerably improved since then. Patient preferences now help direct physicians and nurses about what type of care they would want to receive. But 50 years into the future, we will look back on today and conclude that medicine was sorely lacking when it came to how we handle death.

Many in medicine, as well as patients and caregivers, continue to equate more procedures, more chemotherapy, and more intensive care with better care. Studies in patients with cancer and heart disease, the two greatest killers of mankind, show that patients receiving palliative care, which is an approach that focuses on quality rather than quantity of life, can actually live longer. While the goal of palliative care is to help people with a serious illness live as well as possible — physically, emotionally and spiritually — rather than as long as possible, some people receiving palliative care might also live longer since they avoid the complications associated with procedures, medications, and hospitalization

In addition, while medical advances have moved forward at blinding pace, the ethical discourse surrounding many technologies has not kept up. Take, for example, cardiac devices such as pacemakers and mechanical pumps that can be placed in the heart. Many patients with terminal illnesses who want to deactivate these devices find resistance from the health system, since some continue to equate deactivating them with euthanasia. We need to continue to make sure that even as technological advances blossom, patients remain at the center, and physicians continue to honor their wishes.

And while the palliative care specialty has greatly improved end-of-life care, too often, palliative care has been used as a way to avoid the culture change needed by all medical specialties to better handle death. Despite its many benefits, many patients and physicians are scared of “palliative care” because of its strong association with the end of life. Some have been compelled to change the title of their practices to “supportive care.” To many patients, the very name “palliative” implies that they will be abandoned, making them very reluctant to accept their services. The fact is that palliative care can, and should, be delivered to patients with serious illness alongside conventional care.

But the issues go beyond the name — one recent study showed that palliative care-led meetings with families of patients in intensive care units led to an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms among family members. Palliative care specialists are often consulted in tense situations when patients are critically ill, and they often have no prior relationship with patients or their families, who might be unprepared to have serious discussions with them. That’s why most of these difficult conversations should be delivered by the doctors and surgeons primarily responsible for treating the patients. One study estimated that by 2030, the ratio between palliative care specialists and eligible patients will be 1 to 26,000. Palliative care specialists cannot be entirely responsible for end-of-life care by themselves.

To emerge on the right side of history, the entire culture of medicine needs to be turned around. End-of-life care is not just palliative care’s business. It is everyone’s business, from emergency room doctors to primary care physicians. Physicians need to abandon outdated ideas that their role as healers is incompatible with helping patients die comfortably and on their own terms. Helping patients die well is as important as helping them live to the fullest.

Complete Article HERE!

B.C. man throws party as he undergoes medically-assisted death

‘The one thing that I don’t feel is loss,’ says widow

Would you help your good friend die?

“Paddleton” is a road movie with a heavy destination

This Ray Romano and Mark Duplass drama, currently on Netflix, explores how to help someone have a dignified death

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

I don’t know what your definition of a true friend is, but mine would definitely include “willing to help me die.”

The Netflix feature “Paddleton” is a laconic road movie about the relationship between the terminally ill Michael (Mark Duplass) and Andy (a restrained, terrific Ray Romano), his upstairs neighbor and best friend. Not much happens. Except life and death. Michael has the good fortune to have metastatic cancer in California, which means he can exercise the state’s right to die option. “I don’t want to do it alone, and I was hoping,” he tells Andy as they casually nibble cashews one afternoon. “You would help me out.”

The concept of how to have a decent death has provided plenty of fictional inspiration over the years. Sixteen years ago, Ryan Murphy’s “Nip/Tuck” did a haunting arc about a woman with late stage breast cancer enlisting her lover, a doctor, to assist her in making a peaceful exit. The Oscar-winning 2012 “Amour” similarly explored assisted death as an act of love. And just two years ago, “Grace and Frankie” introduced Babe, a free-spirited pal of the girls who asks for help planning a blow-out farewell party — and a glitch-free ending for her life. Estelle Parsons was lauded for her guest role, but not everyone was a fan. One ethics blog subtly described the episode as “Grace and Frankie kill their friend.”

California’s End of Life Option Act came about in no small part thanks to the legacy of Brittany Maynard, a 29 year-old Anaheim woman who spent her final months advocating to die with as much agency as possible before her brain cancer took over. She died in Oregon in 2015, surrounded by family and loved ones but far from home, because she needed to be in a state that would provide the appropriate environment. Physician assisted death is currently legal in seven states and the District of Columbia, though it continues to face numerous legal challenges.

But “Paddleton” isn’t a right to die movie. There is no courtroom battle to be fought, nor any secretive pact to be made. When Andy initially goes through the routine dance of assuring Michael that he can’t give up because “miracles happen,” Michael counters, “They already gave me the prescription.” Andy grapples with his assigned role a moment, then stoically tells him, “OK.”

The men take a leisurely six-hour drive to one of the few pharmacies in the state that will fill the prescription. They bicker and drink and have loose, random and often very funny conversations. They return home and face the increasingly imminent fact that one of them will not be there much longer.

“Paddleton” (named for one of the men’s made-up games) was co-written and co-stars Mark Duplass, so it comes as no surprise it has a certain mumblecore je ne sais quoi. Scenes stretch out almost aimlessly. The repetitive routines of two schlubby, not very dynamic individuals play out in real time. There are no noble speeches. Yet within the film is a resonant meditation on the uniquely bewildering experience of imminent grief. “I’m the dying guy!” Michael yells to Andy at one point late in the story. “I’m the other guy!” Andy retorts, helplessly, heartbroken.

I’ve spent a lot of time the last several years being the other guy. I’ve sat with friends shriveling in their hospital beds. I’ve attended family funerals other relatives wouldn’t. I watched “Paddleton” a few hours before learning of the sudden death of one of my daughter’s oldest friends. And all I’ve ever really learned from all of it is that whether you’re prepared for it or not, the loss of someone you love will hit you like a baseball bat, and keep hitting you for longer than you ever thought possible.

The men in “Paddleton” are overgrown kids who like puzzles and pizza. Yet there are few tasks in life that demand as much delicacy and grit as facing death, and that task they manage with exemplary skill. As they sit together on Michael’s floor, preparing a final cocktail, Andy deadpans, “I don’t even know if you had to buy this particular pill. A hundred of anything would . . . you know.” He is sincere and reassuring and not somber. And when he later goes alone into the kitchen to mix the drink, Andy adeptly performs the chore, pausing only briefly to rip off a paper towel to dab his eyes.

I aspire to die someday with dignity, though I’m not currently making a fantastic show of living with it. Neither are any of the characters of “Paddleton.” They are — even the peripheral ones — awkward and strange and pretty weird. Maybe most of us are. And as much as we deserve a death with dignity, we long for one with empathy, shared with a friend who’ll hold our hand as we leave, and miss us when we’re gone.

Complete Article HERE!