Senator Dianne Feinstein, who died last week, was the longest serving woman in the U.S. Senate. Last week’s post told the story of her battle against her stepdaughters. Today’s post focuses on another battle she fought—a conflict not about money. This struggle dealt with Senator Feinstein’s health and the impact of declining health on both the afflicted person and the caregivers.
The story is told through the eyes of Patti Davis, daughter of another politician. From her own experience watching the decline of her father President Ronald Reagan, Davis wrote “Floating in the Deep End: How Caregivers Can See Beyond Alzheimer’s.” Most recently, Davis provides an introspective recap in a guest essay for The New York Times. In it, she gives a heartfelt overview of the challenges faced by both the one suffering from dementia as well as the one providing care to a loved one with that dreaded disease.
Although Senator Feinstein’s diagnosis has not been revealed, Davis recognizes familiar signs: “the looks, the behavior . . . When Senator Feinstein returned from her lengthy time away, it was painfully illuminating to see her tell a reporter that she hadn’t been away at all, that she had been right there the whole time.” Davis understands the desire to preserve dignity and control over their lives. “They want to go to work, drive a car, live on their own.” Yet “for people losing their cognition, terror can be a constant companion. Confusion nips at their heels, and they reach desperately for the person they once were.” Davis describes how a trip to the Reagan Ranch, once her dad’s favorite place on Earth, made him agitated and frightened by the expansive green miles he once loved. Dementia narrows the boundaries of one’s world.
Beyond the impact of dementia on the patient, Davis also laments the impact on the caregiver. “It unleashes a torrent of emotions in caregivers. There is a fear of the unknown, . . . and there is a haunting awareness that everything you once relied on is falling apart.” Davis describes “caregiver stress” and “caregiver burnout” to the point that their own health can be put at risk.
Aside from the emotional issues, loved ones must also address legal and financial matters. Davis speculates on the challenges Senator Feinstein may have confronted in giving her daughter a power of attorney to act on her behalf. “For a son or daughter to assume autonomy over a parent’s life and say, ‘I’m making the decisions now,’ is a role reversal for which there’s no preparation.”
In my work as an estate planning lawyer, I often counsel families dealing with that role reversal. When a child approaches a parent to address dementia issues, it can be a difficult conversation. It helps to have an objective person on the team to help the family navigate these potentially turbulent waters. For example, a longtime client held a family meeting in my conference room so I could break the news to the patriarch that he could no longer drive. Having that message come from me made it easier for the patriarch to accept it. As dementia progressed, the caregiving process gradually led to a move to a memory care facility.
Whether or not Senator Feinstein’s “untold story” parallels President Reagan’s situation remains to be seen. However, when health challenges arise, caregivers need to know they are not alone. There are excellent resources to help. The Blum Firm would be honored to help provide families in need with appropriate estate planning solutions and caregiving support.
Rest in peace, Senator Feinstein.
Marvin E. Blum
President Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis observes similarities between Senator Feinstein’s health decline and her father’s, highlighting the challenges faced by both the afflicted person and the caregivers.