The Danger of Speaking for the Dying Patient with “Intellectual Disabilities”

After suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for more than two decades, my grandma quietly passed away at a nursing home in California several years ago. This may sound like a story too common to tell in the United States. However, my grandma never wanted to go to a nursing home in the first place. As someone who spent the majority of her life in China, she only immigrated to the United States to reunite with her family after my grandpa passed. When her conditions first developed, her own children (my extended family who lived with her) considered her a burden and liability, and sent her away against her will – a stark violation of Confucian filial piety cherished in my culture. After being admitted to a public nursing home with very few Mandarin speaking staff and patients, her condition deteriorated rapidly, partly as a result of language barriers and general isolation from family and friends. She soon lost most of her basic functioning and remained in a borderline vegetative state for the last few years of her life.

I could not help but think about my grandma when I read a recently published piece in New York Times. In “A Harder Death for People with Intellectual Disabilities,” Tim Lahey, M.D., argues that current laws make it too difficult for the “loved ones” and legal guardians of patients with “intellectual disabilities” to make end-of-life decisions on behalf of patients who cannot speak for themselves. Based on his own experience with patients in intensive care units, he criticizes the burdensome legal procedures required in some states to allow legal guardians to “decline life-sustaining therapies” and medical providers to “avoid giving unwanted care that isn’t likely to heal” these patients. From his point of view, questions a judge may ask such as “how sure is the guardian or family member of the patient’s wishes?” and “what’s the doctors’ best estimate at a prognosis?” are slowing down the “prompt, patient-centered, bedside care that all of us deserve.” Continue reading