What Rights Does An Aging Parent With Dementia Have To Make Decisions?

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Description: Aging parent with dementia may still have rights to make some decisions
Aging parent with dementia may still have rights to make some decisions

When an aging parent is diagnosed with dementia of any kind, it can be devastating and confusing to the family. For some, there is denial: ”it’s not that bad, I don’t see anything wrong with her, and let’s just let things stay the same for now.” For others, there is overreacting and trying to push the aging parent into a care facility before that may be needed, just because of assumptions about dementia. Family fights over these things, such as we address at AgingParents.com, are not unusual. As the disease affects each person in an individual way, it is impossible to generalize much about what decisions a person with dementia can make.

How much choice does an aging parent with dementia have about help she needs?


The law promotes the concept of allowing self-determination as much as is safe and reasonable, as it is considered to be a basic human right. When a person’s decision-making capacity is impaired by disease, the question of what is safe and reasonable is often the subject of heated debate among family members. Is it reasonable to do whatever the elder says he or she wants because she says she wants it? Or is that merely pretending that the individual is not impaired and allowing the elder to put one’s self in danger that the elder cannot appreciate?

An example from AgingParents.com is the case of Bonnie, who came to us with her daughter, Marian due to a family fight over where Bonnie was going to live and who was in charge. Bonnie was an 85 year old woman who lost her husband of 58 years. The house she and her husband had lived in was in need of much deferred maintenance. She had memory problems, was deeply grieving and severely depressed after her husband died. The best choice of how to help among her three daughters was to meet and make decisions together. None lived in the same state as their mom. All were capable of helping. But conferring together was not how this family worked.

Historic conflicts surfaced. The eldest daughter, Morgan, appointed herself in charge and forged ahead, moving her mom out of her home and sending her from place to place while she used mom’s money to fix up the house. She then put Bonnie in an assisted living facility in a state where Bonnie knew no one. Morgan said she would visit sometimes as she had a vacation home near the facility. Morgan then promptly went back to her primary residence in her home state, leaving Bonnie there by herself. This enraged the other two siblings.

Bonnie reached out to her second daughter, Marian, and her other daughter, Monica and begged them several times to come and get her out of there. Marian agreed, then drove many hours to the facility. She packed up her mom and took her back home to Marian’s house, which she and Monica agreed was best. A family standoff ensued. Morgan was furious. She had previously taken Bonnie to a doctor who said Bonnie had dementia and that she could not make financial decisions. That much was not in dispute. But did Bonnie have the right to decide where she was going to live and whom she wanted to have at her side, helping as needed? Morgan has seized control without talking to her sisters. Bonnie was very upset with Morgan about this. She felt bullied and vulnerable due to the severe grief she felt when Morgan took her to the doctor. “I would have signed anything then” she said later.

We met Marian and Bonnie in person at AgingParents.com, where we invited Morgan and Monica to join the conversation by teleconference. Morgan refused. We urged Marian to have Bonnie evaluated by a neurologist to find out more about the extent of her dementia-related impairments. Dr. Davis, geriatric psychologist here also did a series of tests. The results were surprising. Bonnie tested better than expected, now that she is much less stressed and further along in the process of grieving. In the comfort of Marian’s home she says she feels very secure. She wants to stay, rather than go back to her own home alone, and she wants Marian and her husband to keep helping her.

This is case illustrates the effort by Marian to honor her mother’s right to self-determination in choosing where she wants to live and whom she wants to help her with managing her finances. It also illustrates the effort by Morgan to remove her right to self-determination by forcing her into assisted living when she preferred to live with family. Bonnie is safe in Marian’s home where help is available and can be supplemented with home care as needed. Bonnie may not be able to keep track of her checkbook, but she is very clear about her preferences.

The takeaways:

  1. If your aging parent is diagnosed with dementia, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the parent is incapable of making ANY decisions. Finances are likely to need management by someone else but the right to make decisions about where to live must be looked at separately.
  2. Not every person with dementia should live alone and not everyone needs a care facility either. Options within families should be discussed jointly, and with the aging parent’s right to some self-determination in mind. Eventually a person with dementia cannot live alone but the point when living alone becomes unsafe is very individual.
  3. The concept of self-determination is complicated when it is considered for persons with dementia. Judgment gets impaired. Reasoning falls apart at some point. Safety must be the overriding concern but deciding what is safe works best when all family members look at the expressed wishes of their elder, together with current medical information.
  4. Grief, stress, moving to a different location, depression and other factors can significantly affect what a doctor sees in examining a person for dementia. Repeat and updated evaluations are essential in deciding what is best for any aging parent with a diagnosis of dementia.

Carolyn Rosenblatt, RN, Elder law attorney, AgingParents.com

If you are struggling with any issues among family about your aging loved one, get guidance from us at AgingParents.com. We are here to offer you relief from your distress. Call for an appointment today.

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