It was recently reported that retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, has early stage dementia, most likely Alzheimer's Disease. This is sad to see since I recall reading her well-reasoned and thoughtful judicial opinions in law school. While she was a Republican and leaned conservative, she was also a moderate and respected how the Court had ruled in the past, even if it was different than how she would have ruled. She also tried to tailor her decisions very narrowly, based on the facts of the particular case, to avoid creating broad precedent so as not to “legislate” from the bench. She understood, not only the law, but her role in the context of our co-equal branches of government. She was also, of course, the first female Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Life can be short and random
Justice O'Connor's diagnoses of dementia should give is all pause to reflect on our own lives and how precious each day and moment is. We may be here in this moment, but nothing beyond that is guaranteed or certain. For some, our lives are taken away completely, perhaps the victim of a serious accident, or natural disaster, or random act of violence. And for others, our bodies and minds grow weak and tired over time to the point we can no longer function on our own. We see these things happen to “others” every day, thinking (or at least hoping) it will not happen to us or our loved ones. But life, in many respects, is about randomness and how we cope with the unexpected.
In the case of Justice O'Connor, as brilliant as she is, she too is not immune from the ravages of this condition we call dementia - - that organic process that slowly and persistently eats away at our brains, transforming us to a life of dependence and neediness. Vibrance is replaced with melancholy and functionality is replaced with helplessness. Or as Nancy Reagan once described her husband's condition, it's “the long goodbye.”
So, what to do?
Medically, unfortunately, there is not much that can be done. There is no known cure for Alzheimer's Disease and there are only a few drugs that may delay the progression of the disease, at least in its early stages. Beyond that, the disease simply marches on.
Legally, however, there are a few things people can do in terms of establishing a plan for how they wish to be treated once the dementia progresses to the point where they are no longer able to manage their own affairs. This includes signing a Durable General Power of Attorney and Advance Medical Directive for Health Care (also called a Living Will) in which you can name people to act on your behalf (your attorney-in-fact and health care proxy) to manage your financial and medical affairs. In these documents, you can also express your wishes about where you would like to live and whether and to what extent you want life support.
These are simple documents and can be done at a very reasonable price, assuming you use a lawyer.
Take control while you are still in control!
If you do not have these documents in place and you develop a dementia like Justice O'Connor, your family may be forced to file for guardianship, which is a court action that will cost several thousands of dollars, not to mention make public some of the more private aspects of your life. You also leave to the discretion of the court the decision of who will be in charge of making decisions for you. Why place that decision in the hands of a judge who knows nothing about you?
In most cases, a Durable General Power of Attorney and Advance Medical Directive for Health Care can avoid guardianship.
As I always tell my clients: Take control while you are still in control!