Should Aging Parents With Dementia Lose the Right to Vote?

My parents, products of the Depression and World War II, had very strong opinions about the right to vote. It was considered nearly sacred, a right that was not to be ignored. They weren't political people, just people who deeply appreciated the right to vote and realized the importance of doing so.

Some of my memories of my vibrant mother in action were during the years when the League of Women Voters was really getting a foothold in my home area. Again, Mom wasn't a political person, but the "League," as she called it, was just there to get people out to vote. They are still active in holding debate forums all over the country.

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In those days, we'd have a garage full of modest-sized, plain white signs that said in large black letters, VOTE. Mom and her colleagues spent hours hauling these signs around town, asking people to please put them in their yards, then going back and collecting them prior to Election Day.

Years passed, and Mom was no longer active in the League. However, she and Dad always considered their right to vote just that, a right to be exercised. Their civic duty.

By the time my uncle became a resident at Rosewood on Broadway, a nursing home close to my own home, Rosewood was a precinct voting location. It was handy, as my parents voted close to their apartment, and I could easily guide Uncle Wilkes, an opinionated, retired military officer, down to the poll site, via the elevator, and we'd vote at Rosewood. Then came Dad's brain surgery, his subsequent dementia, and his move to Rosewood.

Dad still had lucid moments and, while he couldn't make his hands do what his brain wanted them to do, we were well aware of his voting preferences. I ordered him an absentee ballot, and Mom and I helped him vote by reading and discussing each choice. We felt comfortable that he was voting as he chose. He had dementia but dementia doesn't mean stupid. He had many very bad days, but he had not changed his views on who should be in major offices.

Eventually, Mom moved to Rosewood, as her arthritis grew so bad that she fell regularly and she was afraid to be alone. My daily time with was not enough to make her feel secure. Even the personal alarm she wore, where she could call me at the push of a button, didn't help. She made the decision to go to Rosewood with Dad.

At the time, her dementia had not gotten passed the "some forgetfulness" stage. By that time, we'd decided that Dad likely wasn't aware enough at election time to vote, and so we felt he wouldn't feel diminished by not exercising his right. We also knew he could no longer make an informed decision. Together, we decided it was time he skipped voting, and he didn't seem to notice, and he was better off not talking about political things, as he could longer separate reality from the voice in his head.

However, Mom was determined to vote and I felt she was competent enough to make her own decisions. I took her to the voting booth and helped her in, then waited for her to finish. We'd then go back to her room to complete our daily routine.

I'll back up a bit to say that I was used to helping elders vote. My neighbor Joe, the first elder I consistently cared for, was totally deaf and had limited vision. Joe and I had very different political views. We debated them daily, just for fun, with Joe talking and me writing my silly answers back.

I would take Joe to the poll, sit with him and help him mark his ballot, as I read each office and the choices to him. We'd joke about the process, and I'd bring a magnifying glass along just to prove I was showing him the right ones to mark. We had fun with the process, but we took voting seriously. Therefore, helping elders vote was natural for me. It would never have occurred to me to deny Joe help in voting his views.

As Mom's dementia grew worse, I started to wonder a bit. Could I just let the election slip past? Would she notice? Where did her rights stop? I'd felt guilty when we stopped Dad's voting, but there wasn't as much gray area. He really had gotten past the point of awareness and decision making. With Mom, it was different.

I found that she was very aware it was election time, even if she couldn't remember if my sister had come to visit or not, the Sunday before. I was also aware of how steadily dementia was eating into her dignity as a person and devouring of her decision making rights. I agonized over voting rights and whether she should do it.

However, until the last couple of years of her life, I kept helping her vote. Was I right? I knew her preferences. In hindsight, I probably should have had a third person help, but who but family would have known her past preferences and her political beliefs? How would it have helped to have someone sit there as we discussed it? I'm not sure, but maybe I should have. What is done is done.

It's the "why" that mattered to me. She and I didn't necessarily agree on all things political. But one thing we both knew was that she believed in her right to vote. This was a right that she held dear. I felt that as long as she was aware of the campaigns and that it was time to vote, it was her right to vote as she chose.

This is one of those issues, much like what I wrote about in "Elders and Sex: Who gets to Decide What is Proper?," that is going to take on a much larger social presence as we move forward. Maybe some states have laws already in place about people with dementia and voting. But where would they draw the line? Should someone who was just diagnosed be denied the right to vote? How about someone who has been diagnosed, but is taking medication and still drives? Should that person be deprived of this very American right?

As baby boomers age, and more and more are diagnosed with dementia, this could become a political and social hot potato. Should a person lose his or her voting rights when they can no longer drive safely? Should they lose the right to vote when they no longer can recite the alphabet? Just where do we, as caregivers, draw the line? Will we have to prove people who have been diagnosed with dementia legally competent in order for them to exercise their right to vote?

For me it was a decision about the dignity of my elders. I made the decisions I made with my heart, and with the information I had at the time. As times change, this situation will likely become scrutinized more closely. Add the right to vote to the list of issues the tsunami of aging boomers will be shining a light on. Where do dignity and rights stop and the ability to make an informed decision end?

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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