Abbotsford nursing home refuses to follow instruction in “living will”

An Abbotsford nursing home is refusing to follow an instruction in the "living will" of a resident suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The 82-year-old is in the final stage of the debilitating illness, and her husband and daughter have asked the nursing home to stop providing food and liquid to her - since that is exactly what the woman requested in a 1991 document.

However, the Abbotsford nursing home has refused to comply with the request made by the resident's family members. The nursing home (supported by the province) maintains that ceasing to provide food and liquid to the elderly woman would be illegal and would traumatize staff members.

The case has sparked considerable media attention. Observers are watching to see whether and how the province's courts will set limits on the instructions that can be provided by individuals to caregivers and medical personnel about the type of health care they wish to receive when they are no longer able to communicate.

Former nurse expressed specific wishes regarding Alzheimer's care in 1991 document

As a recent article in the Abbotsford News explains, the woman expressed her desires concerning her future health care in a 1991 document entitled "statement of wishes." Formerly, such a document was often referred to as a "living will." Currently, and since 2011, the legal document fulfilling this purpose is called an "advance directive" in British Columbia.

Since the woman had provided nursing care to patients with Alzheimer's disease, she was familiar with its symptoms and wished to avoid the worst ravages of the illness. Accordingly, she requested "that she be fed 'no nourishment or liquids' if she were in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's."

According to an article published by The Province indicates that the woman is now in the final stage of the seven stages of Alzheimer's. She is fed by spoon, cannot speak, does not recognize family members and is capable of limited physical movement. Since 2011, her husband has been asking the nursing home to honour the document's instruction not to provide food or liquid. Recently the husband and daughter petitioned the British Columbia Supreme Court to order the health care institution to follow the instruction.

Nursing home and British Columbia government refuse to consent to "starvation" of resident

The nursing home - with the support of Fraser Health and the provincial government - has responded to the family's petition by articulating its position in a document filed with the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The document alleges that, while relevant law permits the withdrawal of "extraordinary measures" in accordance with the wishes of a resident, the family in this case is requesting the "starvation" of the resident. The nursing home declares that this is "not only illegal, but also offensive to public decency."

In addition, the document mentions that some staff of the nursing home have expressed a reluctance to stop feeding the woman, indicating that this "would have a traumatic effect" on them.

Any resident of British Columbia who wrote a "living will" prior to the implementation of the current provincial legislation in 2011 should ask a lawyer to review their document and determine whether it qualifies as an advance directive. An experienced wills and estates lawyer can ensure that your wishes concerning the health care that you will receive should you become incapacitated are properly recorded in a legal document.