Older Adults and Capacity to make Decisions: Protection vs. Autonomy
As we age, many of us begin to experience the normal consequences of aging, including some memory loss. Unfortunately, many of us may end up suffering from Alzheimer’s and related dementias. As a result, capacity has become a bigger problem among seniors.
There are ways to manage decision-making for a senior who has lost capacity to make his or her own decisions about care or property. If the person executed a power of attorney, their attorney can step in. If there is no power of attorney, a guardian can be appointed by the court. However, the imposition of a substitute decision maker can be a significant restriction on an older adult’s liberty, and some seniors may resist that imposition.
An article in The Walrus earlier this year considered this issue, and the impact a finding of incapacity can have on a senior’s autonomy in Canada.
One of the concerns discussed in the article is that “some seniors find that, once declared incapable, they are unable to challenge the decision.” In Ontario, we have the Consent and Capacity Board, which is an independent tribunal that, among other things, reviews various determinations regarding an individual’s capacity. However, this is apparently a rarity in Canada. The only other similar body is located in the Yukon.
Another issue raised by the Walrus article is with the lack of a standardized system for assessing capacity. The person doing the assessment can vary (doctor, nurse, social worker, etc.), as well as the tests conducted. This is made even more complicated by the fact that there are differing levels of capacity for different tasks (e.g. making a Will, managing property, getting married, granting a power of attorney for personal care).
Unfortunately, the lack of attention paid to the issue of aging and capacity appears to be systemic. As cynically, but perhaps also realistically stated in the Walrus article: “It can seem like a great deal of attention is paid to other institutions that house vulnerable segments of the population, such as children in daycares. But there’s no future in aging; there is next to no potential that a senior might one day cure cancer or be the next prime minister. Reform in elder care may be desperately needed, but it hasn’t been forthcoming.”
There is a fine balance to be struck between restricting seniors’ autonomy, and protecting vulnerable people. A collaborative “supported decision-making model”, as discussed in the article may be one way of doing this. I hope that as more attention is drawn to these issues, there will be greater awareness, and increased progress and reform for our seniors.
Thanks for reading,
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