Dementia, the elephant in the conversational room, has begun to lift its trunk and trumpet around. Ask anyone over 60, or almost anyone whose parents are over 60, to list the Big Fears, and dementia will be up there at the top. But precisely because it defies solution, can’t be predicted and won’t go away, it has long been among the great taboos for meaningful public discourse.
Perhaps that’s beginning to change. There are a few answers emerging as alternatives to warehousing, or being warehoused, in an institution somewhere when Alzheimer’s or other dementia takes over. Some of them make very good sense. All of them require consideration with a cold, clear eye while still sane and healthy, and that’s when the elephant in the room needs to be shoved aside so conversation can happen.
At a recent meeting of advocates for improved care and expanded choice at the end of life, a small group gathered to discuss raising awareness for Compassion & Choices, one of the leading organizations addressing these issues today. The talk quickly turned to the subject of advance directives – everyone in the room had such documents in place – and from there to dementia.
“I suppose if my Alzheimer’s gets really bad I won’t care any more,” said one, “but I absolutely hate the idea that the images my friends and family will be left with won’t be images of who I am at all.” Said another, “To me, it’s the money. I just don’t want every last penny I want to leave my family going instead to some nursing home.” And a third added, “My husband has promised to slip me poison.”
Actually, there may be better solutions, even if they remain only partial solutions. Compassion & Choices now offers a “Dementia Provision” document that may be attached to one’s advance directives, stipulating that in the event he or she winds up with dementia the signer declines all measures that would prolong life. Author/ethicist Stanley Terman is taking this concept farther (devising stronger, more explicit instructions) for those wanting to avoid prolonged life after dementia strikes. While I don’t always agree fully with Dr. Terman (except for his inclusion of a story of mine in The Best Way to Say Goodbye; I don’t get royalties) I applaud his dogged search for answers, partial or absolute, to a problem that defies easy solution. The conversation is also being aided and abetted by some good new books, including John West’s The Last Goodnights, and everything starts with the conversation.
If the conversation continues, the elephant may leave the room.