Man says state ignoring wife's wishes in advance directive

Controversy develops over advance directive

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Over the course of roughly 40 years, Bill Harris has built up a lifetime of memories with his wife Nora.

“She was a very bright person. She was a librarian. We went to Antarctica twice,” said Harris.

But now she's much different. Nora was diagnosed with early onset of Alzheimer’s about seven years ago.

“She doesn't really make words sometimes,” said Harris. "She doesn't recognize me. She doesn't know who I am.”

For Harris, the difficult situation was made worse by a Southern Oregon judge's ruling this summer.

“They basically have condemned her to ride out Alzheimer’s to the bitter end,” said Harris. “In a way that's exactly what she did not want to do.”

He said when Nora found out about her diagnosis, she filled out an advance directive to make sure her illness isn't prolonged.

“From her point of view when it became mechanically not possible to engineer eating by herself then she would want basically to let nature take its course,” explained Harris.

But she stopped eating by herself and now she's being spoonfed at a nursing home. The judge ruled she must continue to be spoonfed because her advance directive wasn't specific enough.

“We had friends of 30-40 years testify that this is how she felt. Her daughter testified this is how she felt,” said Harris.

Still, Elder Law attorneys say the advance directive forms usually only cover getting fed through a tube.

“It's a conflict between two laws,” said Tim Mcneil, an attorney with The Elder Law Firm in Portland.

Mcneil said on one side, the advance directive allows people to choose what happens if they become incapacitated. But on the other, is a law that makes sure care facilities do their job.

“I think this case is tragic,” he said.

In his almost 20 years of practice, Mcneil said he's never seen a case like this before.

“It's made me think about an advanced directive and what I advise my clients,” said Mcneil.

That advice is to be as specific as possible. It's something Harris wishes he and his wife would have known.

“What they did was basically sentence her to have to experience the full gamut of Alzheimer's,” said Harris.

He said he also wishes the judge would have ruled in the spirit of the law and not the literal language.

For now, Harris said he’ll have to move forward.

“In one sense we just ride it out. That’s what the court says and the second sense, is the only way we can make changes in this is to go public and that’s what I decided to do.”

Mcneil acknowledge that the advance directive law has limitations. He said the legislature could change the law so someone can make decisions on a loved one's behalf. But for now, he said the best option is to be as specific as possible when filling out an advance directive.


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