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Autonomy - Implications For Aging

physician elders person respecting choices

Frail elders who have experienced medically related incapacity often receive medical care in home with assistance from family members, neighbors, or friends. They sometimes rely on others for assistance in securing health care, filling prescriptions, or in complying with recommended medical regimens. Respecting the actual autonomy of such an elder entails more than respecting the right of informed consent or confidentiality. Respecting the actual autonomy of the elder requires that health professionals carefully examine the ways that the standard delivery of health care services can compromise an already impaired autonomy. For example, if elders require assistance in receiving health care services because they have hearing or visual impairments, assistive hearing devices or large-type patient information material or prescription medicine instructions can minimize or eliminate the direct reliance of some elders on others for the most basic elements of medical care.

Emphasizing informed consent can be problematic whenever elders are inclined to defer to authority figures. Such elders are more inclined to accept physician advice than are people in their middle years. For these elders, the right to informed consent is less meaningful than is the opportunity to receive authoritative advice from a physician. Because these elders would prefer to be told what to do rather than being provided with an array of choices, the challenge for physicians involves identifying the basic values or beliefs of patients and incorporating them into a treatment plan.

When physical infirmity associated with aging reduces a person's ability to act independently, it may not alter the person's decisional capacity. Focusing on independence of action may obscure the fact that actual expressions of autonomy always involve two distinct elements, a decisional and an executional element. A person may be autonomous in the sense of being able to make his or her own decisions, but may not be able to carry them out. Hence, autonomy is not lost when a person is unable to carry out a decision because of frailty or physical infirmity. To respect such a person's autonomy requires more than simply allowing them to make choices. It creates the obligation to assist them in carrying out their choices. Thus, respecting actual autonomy in the domain of choice entails that we assist elders in realizing their choices. This can be a formidable challenge in some instances, but in other circumstances minor accommodations are all that is needed.

Assistive devices ranging from hearing aids or wheelchairs to direct assistance in carrying out activities of daily living can serve to sustain the reality of autonomy in a frail elder. Autonomous choice in abstraction from the existential setting of choice is meaningless if the conditions required for its execution cannot be fulfilled. Autonomy that is impaired somewhat by executional inabilities can become a significant problem if the material means for providing executional assistance are not available. For this reason, poverty directly impairs one's autonomy, yet is a condition that is seldom regarded as infringing freedom. Although limitations in executional abilities occur throughout life, they are more significant as one ages and suffers the disabilities associated with growing old. Analogously, decisional impairments associated with dementia or Alzheimer's disease does not obliterate autonomy, but does create challenges for how autonomy of such persons is to be respected.

Because a person can no longer make autonomous choices, it does not mean that their autonomy cannot be respected. All autonomous choices are based on the person's preferences or values that are developed, often over a lifetime. The beliefs and values that guide a person's life is thus the key to respecting their autonomy whenever one's decisional capacity is impaired. In the absence of formal advance directives, these beliefs and values can provide a basis for respecting an elder's autonomy. To do so, however, one needs to know who the elder is. This requirement creates resource demands on caregivers and on a system of care that focuses on respecting patients' choices without regard for the background values or reasons that guide the choice.

Loss of independence is often regarded as the most serious impairment of autonomy. This view creates unrealistic expectations in the context of growing old. In America, ownership or occupancy of one's own home is a cultural value epitomized in the phrase that one's home is one's castle. It is no wonder, then, that living independently at home has become the last stand for elders struggling to maintain their self-respect and sense of dignity. Unfortunately, the requirements for assistance in daily living can become so great that elders cannot provide for themselves in the home. Hence, a struggle ensues between protecting the welfare of the elder and maintaining the elder's sense of identity and independence. Ironically, this struggle exists because we have not taken the demands of autonomy seriously enough.

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