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Dementia: Ethical Issues - Dementia And Moral Standing

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Persons with cognitive deficits such as those brought about by dementia eventually will no longer be intellectually or economically productive. The term "hypercognitivist" was coined in 1995 by Stephen Post to describe a value system that focuses on rational decisional capacity as the marker for moral standing under the protective umbrella of the principle of nonmaleficence (i.e., "do no harm"). In the absence of the ability to make plans and implement them, the person with dementia becomes a "nonperson," who, even if still treated with a degree of care, has a diminished moral standing. In contrast, focus group studies show that most family and professional caregivers hold a diametrically opposite view: they see the person with dementia in terms of remaining capacities, and in terms of emotional and relational well-being despite cognitive losses (Post and Whitehouse, 1995). The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (1999) points out that contrary to dominant schools of ethics, the classical Western tradition of moral thought refuses to devalue the cognitively imperiled.

In the wider culture, the criteria of rationality and productivity may blind many to other ways of thinking about the meaning of one's humanity and the nature of humane care in the context of dementia. Many people simply cannot handle being around someone who is mentally and emotionally disabled. People with the diagnosis of dementia often complain of a sense of social diminution, of a negative social psychology in which they no longer get the respect that they once enjoyed. They typically ask to be more included in conversations, decisions, and activities. A fuller attention to emotional and relational well-being may in some cases offset some of the adverse behavioral impact of neurological impairment. Any tendency to treat someone with dementia as though he or she counts less than, or has a different status than, other human beings should be discouraged (Kitwood, 1997).

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