Four features of this view of autonomy are particularly significant for aging. First, the autonomous person is regarded outside a developmental framework and is assumed to fully possess all autonomy-related faculties. Thus, the standard view of autonomy has no ready way to accommodate incapacity. Second, autonomy implies independence and self-direction. States of dependence are regarded as problematic for true autonomy. Third, autonomy focuses on the individual in abstraction from social structures like the family, so the aged individual is seen as possessing value, purpose, and rights separate from the social and personal relationships that provide everyday support and assistance. Fourth, the standard view of autonomy incorporates a simplifying assumption that freedom of choice or decision-making expresses the most important dimension of being autonomous. Each of these features of autonomy creates a range of problems in the context of aging.
Standard treatments of autonomy focus on individual action and choice without regard for the medical, psychological, or social context of the individual whose autonomy is at issue. This creates special problems for thinking about those processes of aging that create dependencies or compromise the capacities of the elder. In these situations, autonomy and its corollary of rights cannot fundamentally aid elders whose struggle is not against oppression, but to maintain a personal sense of worth and dignity in the face of loss. In stressing the robust exercise of freedom, autonomy can distort the complex phenomenology of aging by vastly oversimplifying what being autonomous involves as one grows old.
Actual expressions of autonomy throughout the life span are always subject to a wide range of circumstances and conditions. For example, metabolic states can induce confusion and alter one's ability to think clearly or to carry out intended choices. Psychological states can distort one's ability to perceive reality accurately and can affect decision-making. Social factors also influence the ways in which one experiences the world and the choices that one practically envisions.
A society that prizes an idealized view of individual action and choice and that values independence, self-direction, and self-control understandably tends to disvalue conditions that compromise action or involve decisional impairments or states of dependence. The paradox of autonomy in aging is that the ideal of autonomy expressed in the robust independent decision maker is incongruent with some of the realities of loss that are associated with growing old. This raises the question: How can the ideals of autonomy be reconciled with the realities of aging?