HASTENED DEATH AND DEMENTIA: A NEW DEVELOPMENT
People are frequently disappointed to learn that Washington’s Death with Dignity Act, and similar laws in other states, do not help people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Our Death with Dignity Act requires that a person be mentally competent to choose a hastened death, and by definition, most people with serious, progressive dementia are not able to make an informed and reasoned decision about this subject. Additionally, dementia is not the type of medical condition that leads to a six month or less prognosis–the mind and body can slowly deteriorate for years with dementia, and death is often the result of a different medical condition.
For years, End of Life Washington has offered information about the only legal option to hasten death for a person with dementia: Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking (“VSED”). This option is only for persons in the very early stages of dementia who still have enough cognitive ability to choose between life and death and enough fortitude to see the VSED process through. (See a thorough discussion of VSED in the ‘Documents” section of this website or request more information on the process by calling our office.) The difficulty with VSED, besides requiring significant willpower and determination, is that a person with slowly developing dementia needs to choose to hasten death during the very early stages of the disease–while still legally competent and able to follow through on the decision. This means that the person might forego a few reasonably comfortable years of life in order to make the VSED decision and to carry it out before too much competence has vanished.
Another problem facing people with late stage dementia is that care facilities frequently will push or cajole people to eat and drink beyond the time when the person is interested in eating. Caregivers often believe they have a duty to feed a patient regardless of that patient’s stated wishes. Caregivers often interpret a person’s opening their mouth when spoon fed as a desire to eat when medical practitioners tell us that opening the mouth is more reflex than an expression of a desire for nutrition. Almost all dementia patients eventually reach a stage where nourishment is unimportant to them.
EOLWA has recently drafted “Instructions for Oral Feeding and Drinking,” similar to an Advance Directive, which express a person’s decisions about when to be offered food and fluids during late stage dementia, when the person lacks mental competence. The “Instructions” list several objective conditions which should be interpreted by caregivers as the desire to stop eating and drinking, and thereby hasten death. Success utilizing the “Instructions” depends on a supportive surrogate health care agent, who has power of attorney to make health care decisions, as well as supportive caregivers.
Please see: “My Instructions for Oral Feeding and Drinking” and the explanatory “About My Instructions for Oral Feeding and Drinking” at the beginning of the “Documents” section of this website. If you wish to sign the document, persons from the EOLWA office can witness and notarize your signature. Please call for an appointment.
What we do
End of Life Washington guides people in planning for the final days of their lives.
We provide free end-of-life counseling and client support services statewide to qualified patients who desire a peaceful death.
We encourage advance planning and set a new standard in Washington for advance planning documents with our End of Life Washington Advance Directive.
We promote the use of Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) for those with serious illnesses. We provide these and many other documents at no cost.
We created and played a key role in leading the coalition that passed Initiative 1000 (the Washington Death with Dignity Act) into law in November, 2008 with nearly 60 percent of the popular vote. We now steward, protect, and uphold the law.
We advocate for better pain management, patient-directed end-of-life care, and expanded choice for the terminally ill. We do not suggest, encourage, or promote suicide or euthanasia.
There is never a fee for our services.