Living with dementia

Making decisions

Respecting individual choice

Making decisions about our own lives is important for all of us. People with dementia also want control of their lives. But the ability to make simple or complex decisions for someone with dementia varies greatly and will depend on her personality and the extent of disease progression.

If you have dementia

A diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease does not mean that you must immediately stop making decisions. But as the disease progresses, your ability to make decisions will change. Your caregivers can continue to offer you options and give you the chance to make decisions on your own, whether they are simple day to day decisions, or decisions about your future care and support.

For family members and caregivers, substitute decision-makers and health-care professionals

People who provide care may not be aware of strategies that help make it easier for people with dementia to make many of their own decisions. Or caregivers may find the strategies time-consuming. It is critical to remember how important decision-making can be to maintaining a person's confidence and self-esteem.

  • Recognize abilities and keep her involved in making decisions

    If you are making decisions on behalf of someone with dementia, use the person’s wishes as a guide, not your own interests.

    Recognize that she still has abilities that should be respected and encouraged. Support her to make her own decisions and involve her in decision-making while she can.

    Feelings and emotions remain intact long after words have lost their meaning, so look for cues in facial expressions, tone of voice and body language.
  • Plan for the future

    Most people are not comfortable about making plans for a time when they will be unable to make decisions and have control of their own lives. Discussing personal values in relation to illness and death, finances and living arrangements, for example, is difficult. But silence on these issues means that you may not know his wishes about his own care, and have more difficulty making decisions. Knowing his values and wishes gives support and reassurance to you and other substitute decision-makers.

    Strategies include
    • While he is able, talk about what he values and how he defines quality of life. Make sure other family members and substitute decision-makers know the results of these discussions.
    • Make a plan for the time when he will not be able to make independent decisions. Discuss openly and frankly future health care, personal care and financial decisions. 
    • Complete legal paperwork to ensure that his wishes are recorded and a substitute decision-maker is named. 
    • Laws about advance directives and substitute decision-making vary between provinces and territories.
  • Adjust to changing abilities

    As the disease progresses, identify the abilities she still has, break down complex tasks and decisions into more easily managed options, and respect her choices.

    • Reduce the number of options at any one time. For example, ask, "Would you like to have your bath now or later?" rather than, "When do you want a bath?"
    • Give step-by-step guidance by asking about one thing at a time and only going on to the next question after each one is answered. "Would you like to go for a walk now?" Then, "Would you like to wear your blue or red sweater?" And then, "Shall we go to the garden or park?"
    • Learn to recognize and be sensitive to the meaning behind facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. Someone with dementia can communicate meaning to anyone who learns to read the emotional signals conveyed.
  • Respect a person's values and wishes

    When she can no longer make decisions, follow her expressed wishes. If you do not know her wishes, make the decision based on what you think she would want. You may have to weigh the risks and benefits of the decision, and assess how it will affect her quality of life and well-being.

Substitute decision-makers

As a person loses the ability to make decisions, decision-making will involve others, such as family members, substitute decision-makers and health-care professionals. Making decisions on another person’s behalf can be difficult and highly stressful, especially when the values and wishes of the person with dementia are unknown, unclear or impossible to follow.

In choosing substitute decision-makers, consider their availability to take on the role, understand and respect the values and wishes of the person with the disease, ability to work with others, and ability to resolve conflicts.

Substitute decision-making can be the responsibility of one person. Or, it could be one person for health-care decisions and another for financial decisions.

Once the substitute decision-maker is chosen, the person with the disease and the substitute decision-maker may want to talk about how disputes might be resolved if they arise.

Laws about substitute decision-making vary in different provinces and territories. Contact your local Alzheimer Society for more information.

  • Advance directive, living will, enduring or durable power of attorney

    You can write down the person's values and wishes in an advance directive, a document that records her wishes about the preferred type of future care. If she can no longer make decisions, the advance directive will provide direction.

    Other terms used for an advance directive in Canada include living will, or enduring or durable power of attorney for health care. Laws about advance directives vary in different provinces and territories. Contact your local Alzheimer Society for more information.
  • Competency assessment

    If you have difficulty assessing his ability to make decisions, you may begin making decisions on his behalf too soon. Of if you have difficulty confronting him about the loss of decision-making abilities, you may avoid the issue even though you know he is making poor decisions.

    For some major decisions, you may need to have experts assess his ability to make that particular decision. Regulations governing competency assessment vary in different provinces and territories. Contact your local Alzheimer Society for information about the relevant regulations in your province or territory.
  • When decisions become difficult

    When asked to make a decision, substitute decision-makers must follow as much as possible the expressed wishes of the person with dementia.

    The wishes of the person may conflict with those of the substitute decision-maker, family or society. For example, a person could express a wish to live at home, but unsafe smoking could put that person and neighbours at risk of fire. Also, if several caregivers are involved in decision-making, they may not be able to agree on what the person's wishes are.

    If conflict develops, or if the person's wishes are not known, unclear or impossible to follow, review the decision based on:

    • Values of the person with dementia
    • Risks and benefits of the decision to the person, caregivers, family members and others affected
    • Effect on the physical and emotional well-being of the person
    • Effect on the quality of life of the person, caregivers and family members.

You may also want to consult an impartial, trusted third party to help resolve the issue. With some decisions, a resolution may take time.

Topics for discussion about the future

Future health care What kind of treatment would he want for other major health problems, such as heart disease or cancer? Would he consider elective surgery, such as cataract removal? Decisions should take into account the effect the treatment would have on both his physical and cognitive health.


End-of-life care

The following chart outlines different approaches to treatment that need to be understood when making decisions for care in the later stage of the disease. Knowing her wishes in advance for these difficult situations can ease the burden of making decisions. However, health-care professionals may not offer choices if they would be ineffective or may cause more harm than good.


Levels of care

Approach to treatment What it means
Aggressive medical care Goal: To prolong life using all available types of treatment.

This could happen either in the hospital or at home. For example, using tube feeding when swallowing is no longer possible, or keeping a person on a respirator when no longer able to breathe independently.
Conservative medical care Goal: To maintain or improve current health status.

Care that is considered routine or usual practice. For example, using blood pressure medication to treat high blood pressure, giving insulin for diabetes or antibiotics for an infection, or setting a fractured hip.
Comfort or palliative care Goal: To provide active and compassionate care when a cure is not the goal.

The priority is symptom and pain control, as well as meeting the physical, emotional, spiritual, social and cultural needs of the person and the family.

Finances

Person responsible: Has someone been named to look after her financial interests? This may or may not be the same person responsible for decisions relating to health and personal care.

Financial documents: Are financial and legal documents, such as wills, insurance policies and bank accounts, gathered together in a safe location?

Financial priorities: Have financial priorities been set? For example, a person with Alzheimer's disease might indicate that the top priority for financial resources be the person's comfort and well-being.


Personal care

Language: What language should be used in communicating with the person with Alzheimer's disease?

Food: Does she want to follow a specific type of diet, such as vegetarian or kosher?

Hygiene: Is keeping well-groomed important? Does he want specific routines to be followed, such as hair dyeing or beard trimming?

Clothing: Does she want to wear specific clothing, such as a favourite sweater, prayer shawl or head covering?

Daily routines: Are there daily habits to be followed? Is he a morning person or a night person? Examples: having tea before breakfast, watching the news every evening.

Health routines: Does she want to follow specific health practices such as taking daily vitamins or having special dental care?

Activities: Does he want to continue to pursue certain activities such as daily walks, golf, quilting, music?

Fears: Is she especially afraid of certain things such as dogs, storms, loud noises, spiders?

Provision of care: When extra help is needed, are finances available to provide this? When living at home is not possible, what type of care facility would he prefer? Examples: small, large, culturally-specific.


Resources:
  1. Contact your local Alzheimer Society for province/territory-specific information on:
    • Substitute decision-making for health care and finances
    • Advance directives
    • Competency assessments
  2. Let Me Decide. William Molloy et al, Newgrange Press (Canada), May, 2000. For ordering: 905-628-0354.
  3. The Moral Challenge of Alzheimer's Disease. Ethical Issues from Diagnosis to Dying (2nd ed.). Stephen Post, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. For ordering: www.press.jhu.edu.

Last Updated: 12/16/11