Growing Old and Issues of Diminished Capacity
“Aging seems to be the only available way to live a long life.”
– Daniel Francois Esprit Auber
Maggie Kuhn started the Gray Panthers in 1970 as a response to her forced retirement at age 65. The mission of the Gray Panthers was to speak out against age discrimination, the Viet Nam war, and other political oppressions. There is no doubt that stereotyping due to age exists in contemporary society. The Gray Panthers call this kind of discrimination “ageism.” To be told "you’re too old" is as disheartening as to be told "you’re too young"; both statements make you a stereotype when in fact you are an individual.
No bright line test
Obviously, mere chronological age does not give an answer to the question of whether or not a person is mentally or physically impaired. Nor does a medical diagnosis give the complete answer on the issue of the ability to be in control of one’s own life. When and to what extent a persons capacity to make decisions is diminished is a very difficult topic for lawyers, care-givers, and families.
The right to make bad decisions
How many of us know an older adult insisting on living alone at home when friends, family, and advisors think it’s a bad idea? Is the person incapable of making decisions? Or is it simply a decision that others do not agree with. Concern in a situation like this stems from the fear that the person will be hurt – they will leave the stove on and burn the house down, they will fall down and not be able to get up or summon help, they won’t eat properly and can’t get around to doctor’s appointments and the grocery store. Is a person who chooses to live this way incompetent? Or merely independent?
There is a long-standing American tradition of individualism – of each person being free to make his or her own choices and decisions and choosing his or her way of life. While fostering independence and self esteem, individualism also tends to promote self-centeredness at the expense of family and community. Individualism can mean being free to make bad choices.
Different competency standards
The issues surrounding diminished capacity run from whether or not an older adult should contihnue to drive, to whether he or she can live alone at home, wheter he or she can make a will, make gifts, and otherwise control finances, to whether or not a court-appointed guardian must be appointed. Often, a family’s first encounter with this question is whether or not the older adult should continue driving a car.