By James Toomey
In order to make a decision recognized in law — to enter into or enforce a contract, buy or sell property, or get married or divorced — an individual must have the mental capacity the law requires for the decision. As people, especially older adults, develop dementia, their decision-making abilities are increasingly compromised, and the law begins to find that they lack capacity for particular decisions.
The standards governing capacity determinations, however, are notorious for being vague, inconsistently applied, and excessively curtailing the rights of those with dementia. Part of the problem, I think, is the lack of an agreed-upon normative theory for when in the course of dementia the law ought to intervene in individual decision-making. That is why, here on Bill of Health, I’ve previously called for understanding the perspectives of seniors — the population affected by the doctrine of capacity most closely and most often — on this normative question.
In my recent publication “Understanding the Perspectives of Seniors on Dementia and Decision-Making” in AJOB Empirical Bioethics, I’ve begun to do so, reporting the results of an empirical study that I conducted with the Petrie-Flom Student Fellowship in the 2018-19 academic year. The study, which involved an online survey of and interviews with older adults, revealed a heterogeneity of ways of thinking about the problem, supporting a flexible legal doctrine that would assist people in making their own choices. Notwithstanding the diversity, however, the data reveal several conclusions and tensions of interest to academics and healthcare and legal practitioners.