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SENIOR ADVOCATE

By Liza Horvath

 

 

Changing the Face of the Right to Die Movement

 

Olga had extracted promises from her daughters that if she were ever became “completely out of it” and the quality of her life was so marginalized that she “sat in a wheelchair drooling – thinking nothing,” they would take her to the Pacific Ocean and let her swim to her death. As my sister and I sat at my mother, Olga’s, bedside in what were to become her last days, we agonized over the promise we had made. Surely she was at the point she had most dreaded but our commitment to the promise waivered. My mother was an intelligent and proud woman until the Alzheimer’s disease turned her into a silent and sad shell of a person who was no longer able to care to her most basic daily living needs. My sister and I did not take her to the beach for a final swim – we were cowardly and selfish. The truth is we were afraid that if we took her to the beach we might be charged with manslaughter or at least elder abuse and we had young families that needed us.  

 

Last week Brittany Maynard, an apparently life-loving, beautiful woman of just 29, swallowed a lethal dose of secobarbital and slipped into death. Having been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Maynard chose death on her own terms and did so in the state of Oregon which allows mentally competent, terminally ill patients to request and receive medication that will hasten their death. Oregon is joined in the “Death with Dignity Act” by Vermont and Washington.

 

Maynard, in an interview with People Magazine, was quoted as saying, “My question is, Who thinks they have the right to tell me that I don’t deserve this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months?” California does not have a right to die law although such a law has been unsuccessfully proposed more than once. We now know, however, that if diagnosed with an illness as horrifying as the one Maynard faced, we have the choice of moving to Oregon to make a final exit on our own terms.

 

Unfortunately and frustratingly, Maynard’s ability to choose her final exit underscores and amplifies a fear that many seniors feel – not that they will be diagnosed with terminal cancer, but that they will be found to be suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. If diagnosed with such an illness, will seniors have the requisite “mental capacity” to request and receive a lethal dose of secobarbital?

 

It is a conundrum. We can appoint an agent under an Advance Health Care Directive to “pull the plug,” and we can ask our doctors to enforce a Physicians Order of Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST) to end suffering, but what about asking our agent to administer a suicide drug? At this time our “forms” do not allow for this type of action – but should they? If you are certain that you do not want to suffer in certain ways – or if you feel strongly that you do not want to drain family resources living for months or years in a demented haze, should we have the right to allow our agent to end our life – free from legal repercussion?

 

Maybe, but this can be a slippery slope. Agents would be in the difficult place in making such an enormous decision and could come under scrutiny by family or friends who do not agree with such an action. I do not judge whether a person should hasten their own death but submit for consideration that simply asking my mother to drink a glass of barbiturate laced tea could have – and I repeat could have – made my promise easier to keep.

Liza Horvath has over 30 years experience in the estate planning and trust fields and is the president of Monterey Trust Management, a financial and trust management company. This is not intended to be legal or tax advice. If you have a questions call (831)646-5262 or email liza@montereytrust.com

 


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