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Key Features, Implications For Aging, Social Considerations

Autonomy expresses the idea that persons should direct their own actions and be free from coercion or undue influences by others on their actions and deliberations. The concept of autonomy has touched all areas of social life and has had a pronounced effect on medical ethics and medical practice. Patient autonomy emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in the great social movement that created a diverse range of civil rights, some constitutionally protected, including expanded individual rights in health care, such as access to abortion, end-of-life decision making, and privacy. The clearest expression of autonomy in medicine is the doctrine of informed consent.

Informed consent defines a set of patient rights and reciprocal obligations for health professionals. Informed consent means that patients have a right to make autonomous choices about their medical care. To do so, they must be given information about their medical condition, treatment alternatives, and the burdens and benefits associated with the recommended treatment and its alternatives. Since this information is largely in the hands of physicians, the doctrine of informed consent creates the obligation that physicians disclose information to patients and allow patients to make their own medical decisions. An implication of informed consent is that patients can refuse treatment.

The right to refuse treatment, including life-saving or life-sustaining treatments, has come to be firmly established in law. Recognizing that patients sometimes lack the ability to make their own medical decisions, legislatures created advance directives. Advance directives empower patients to direct their future medical care even when they have lost the ability to make their own medical decisions. These ideas have radically transformed late twentieth-century medicine. In a similar vein, the concept of autonomy has affected our understanding of aging and being old as well.

On the positive side, autonomy has supported criticisms of ageism and other social attitudes and practices that limited the freedom of elders or that relegated elders to a secondary social status. Autonomy has also supported the elimination or modification of age-based discrimination, such as a mandatory retirement age or the proscription of the use of age in employment decisions. Autonomy is also at work in the idea that elders in retirement should remain active and engaged. Their social function is to enjoy an earned leisure and to maintain independence from the responsibilities characteristic of their preretirement lives. The principle of autonomy has thus introduced into gerontology a focus on the individual who is regarded independent of other individuals or social structures like the family. It has highlighted a certain understanding of the autonomous individual as one who has the capacities for self-directed and independent action, deliberation, and decision-making, and it has made these values preeminent. These assumptions demarcate a standard view of autonomy that has important implications for aging.

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Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 1