Senior citizen woman in wheelchair in a nursing home.

Seniors’ Perspectives on Dementia and Decision-Making

By James Toomey

In order to make a decision recognized in law — to enter into or enforce a contract, buy or sell property, or get married or divorced — an individual must have the mental capacity the law requires for the decision. As people, especially older adults, develop dementia, their decision-making abilities are increasingly compromised, and the law begins to find that they lack capacity for particular decisions.

The standards governing capacity determinations, however, are notorious for being vague, inconsistently applied, and excessively curtailing the rights of those with dementia. Part of the problem, I think, is the lack of an agreed-upon normative theory for when in the course of dementia the law ought to intervene in individual decision-making. That is why, here on Bill of Health, I’ve previously called for understanding the perspectives of seniors — the population affected by the doctrine of capacity most closely and most often — on this normative question.

In my recent publication “Understanding the Perspectives of Seniors on Dementia and Decision-Making” in AJOB Empirical Bioethics, I’ve begun to do so, reporting the results of an empirical study that I conducted with the Petrie-Flom Student Fellowship in the 2018-19 academic year. The study, which involved an online survey of and interviews with older adults, revealed a heterogeneity of ways of thinking about the problem, supporting a flexible legal doctrine that would assist people in making their own choices. Notwithstanding the diversity, however, the data reveal several conclusions and tensions of interest to academics and healthcare and legal practitioners.

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Marking the 40th Anniversary of In re Quinlan’s Landmark Contribution to Death & Dying Jurisprudence

by Norman L. Cantor

In 1976, the N.J. Supreme Court issued a remarkably insightful ruling regarding the legal status of a permanently unconscious patient.  In re Quinlan served as a judicial beacon guiding development of death & dying jurisprudence.  Its impact is reminiscent of the judicial role played by Brown v. Board of Education in public education.

To appreciate the wondrous nature of Quinlan, recall the setting and background of the case.  In 1975, a 22 year-old woman, Karen Ann Quinlan, was lying unconscious in a N.J. hospital following 2 anoxic episodes caused by toxic ingestions.  She was sustained by a mechanical respirator and a naso-gastric tube.  The diagnosis was PVS (permanent vegetative state) and the prognosis was that the patient would inevitably die within a year without regaining consciousness.  Ms. Quinlan’s devoted parents reluctantly concluded that their daughter would not want to be maintained in her dismal, hopeless condition.  Their priest and spiritual advisor told them that Catholic doctrine would permit withdrawal of “extraordinary” medical intervention such as the respirator.   But when the parents asked the attending neurologist, Dr. Morse, to withdraw Karen’s respirator, he refused.  He contended that professional medical standards precluded that course.  The hospital concurred.  Facing this resistance, Ms. Quinlan’s father turned to the N.J. chancery court seeking formal appointment as his daughter’s guardian with explicit authorization to direct withdrawal of the respirator.

A variety of interested parties responded to Mr. Quinlan’s chancery petition and they all opposed it.  The county prosecutor asserted that pulling the respirator plug would constitute homicide and the state attorney general concurred.  The attending physicians and the hospital contended that pulling the plug would violate their professional responsibilities to the patient.  And a special guardian ad litem appointed to represent Karen Ann Quinlan insisted that it was in the helpless patient’s best interests to have her life prolonged.  The lower court denied the father’s petition and Mr. Quinlan appealed.

On appeal, the N.J. Supreme Court in 1976 faced the unenviable task of shaping legal policy toward medical conduct likely to precipitate the death of a helpless patient.  This was largely uncharted legal territory with no definitive precedents in state or federal courts.  Common sense said that it can’t be a legal mandate to keep pumping fluids and gases into moribund patients until the last possible breath.  Yet a chorus of naysayers proclaimed that pulling the respirator plug on Ms. Quinlan would be unlawful homicide, or a breach of professional medical responsibility to preserve patients’ lives, or a violation of a guardian’s fiduciary obligation to act in a ward’s best interests.  And even if some circumstances might warrant removal of life-preserving medical interventions, hard questions existed about who is entitled to be the decision maker and what test or criteria govern such surrogate decision making.

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Is It Immoral for Me to Dictate an Accelerated Death for My Future Demented Self?

by Norman L. Cantor

I am obsessed with avoiding severe dementia. As a person who has always valued intellectual function, the prospect of lingering in a dysfunctional cognitive state is distasteful — an intolerable indignity. For me, such mental debilitation soils the remembrances to be left with my survivors and undermines the life narrative as a vibrant, thinking, and articulate figure that I assiduously cultivated. (Burdening others is also a distasteful prospect, but it is the vision of intolerable indignity that drives my planning of how to respond to a diagnosis of progressive dementia such as Alzheimers).

My initial plan was to engineer my own demise while still competent to do so. My sketch of methodologies and my preferred course (stopping eating and drinking) appear at: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/billofhealth/2015/04/16/my-plan-to-avoid-the-ravages-of-extreme-dementia/. The obvious hazard in that plan is cutting short a still vibrant and satisfactory existence.

An alternative strategy would be to allow myself to decline into incompetency, but beforehand to dictate, in an advance directive, rejection of future life-sustaining medical interventions. This strategy would probably work as applied to serious maladies such as kidney disease, lethal cancer, or congestive heart failure. The disturbing issue then becomes timing. The onset of such serious maladies is fortuitous and years of lingering in dementia might precede my demise.

A further alternative would be to seek to accelerate my post-competence demise by declining not only major medical interventions such as mechanical respirators or dialysis, but also more simplistic items like antibiotics, antiarrhythmics, and artificial nutrition and hydration. My envisioned scenario is that infection would occur early (via urinary tract, skin, or pneumonia) and that this condition, left untreated, would precipitate my death. (My advance instructions would allow palliative but not curative measures.)

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