Helping a mother with dementia to vote illustrates need to understand voting rights

Posted 9/14/16

by Stacia Friedman

In 2004, as the country became polarized by the prospect of another Bush term or putting John Kerry in the White House, I was the primary caretaker of my 88-year-old mother who …

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Helping a mother with dementia to vote illustrates need to understand voting rights

Posted

by Stacia Friedman

In 2004, as the country became polarized by the prospect of another Bush term or putting John Kerry in the White House, I was the primary caretaker of my 88-year-old mother who had been diagnosed with dementia three years earlier. There was so much that she could no longer do, but to my surprise, voting was still an option.

According to research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Aging in 2003, people with dementia could vote under certain conditions. Researchers said that the individual didn’t have to comprehend the complexities of the candidates’ platforms (and, frankly, who does?) or even remember the candidates’ names. They only needed to answer the following questions:

Do you want to vote in the next Presidential election?

Do you want to vote for the Democrat or Republican candidate?

Do you understand how your vote will help choose the next President?

Mom answered all three questions without hesitation. When I asked which party she wished to vote for, she snapped back, “I’ve been a Democrat my entire life!”

That is the oddity of dementia. At times, Mom was as lucid as a Congressman. If not more so. Case in point. A year earlier, when newspaper headlines screamed “Shock and Awe” and displayed photos of Baghdad in flames, I was concerned that Mom would mistakenly think bombs were falling in Philadelphia.

“This is not happening here,” I said, holding up the front page of the Inquirer. “This is on the other side of the world. The President declared war and sent American soldiers to invade Iraq.”

Mom’s brow puckered with concern. “Easy for him to do, sitting in the White House, sending young boys off to die,” she said, summing up the situation with more political acumen and compassion than most TV news commentators. But her memory was gone.

“Your father’s been asking about you,” she’d say.

“Oh?” I’d respond, having learned that it was best not to remind her that Dad had died 10 years ago. She would always tell me that he “can’t wait” to see me, which I found both alarming and somehow comforting. That is the oddity and tragedy of dementia. It took away my mother’s memory, but not her empathy, dazzling smile or kind heart.

She lived in a nursing home in Northeast Philly. I conferred with the staff to find out how voting would take place. I was told that Mom would receive an early mail-in ballot. She would not have to deal with the confusion of a voting booth which occasionally baffles me. I would be allowed to assist her in filling out the ballot, as long as I did not make any choices for her.

This is the grey area that continues to cause controversy. On one side, people fear that the 5.4 million Americans now suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease could be victims of voter fraud by having their mail-in ballots filled out by someone else. On the other hand, it would be unfair and, in many cases, illegal, to deny them the right to vote, as long as they understand their options and want to vote.

Unfortunately, for Mom, her candidate lost. Even so, I felt that the election process restored a sense of dignity, of personhood, to my mother when so much else had conspired to take it away.

As the 2016 Election approaches, the right to vote will be a deciding factor in the outcome. While courts are overturning racially motivated voter ID laws, the GOP is fighting back, appealing these rulings. In this election, perhaps more than any other, protecting the right of all citizens to vote is essential to our democracy. That includes millions of Americans with dementia. While not all of them are capable of voting, we must make sure that those who are have fair and equal access.

I understand that the word dementia frightens and confuses people for good reason. (They may even joke that one or both of the candidates is already suffering from the illness.) However, there are many different types of dementia, not all of which are Alzheimer’s, and each type progresses at its own speed. For some people, a diagnosis means an eventual inability to speak or to reason. This is the horror I had anticipated. It never happened. My mother spoke in full, coherent sentences until the very end. Her memory was gone. Not her intelligence. Or political allegiance.

At the age of 91, her last words were, “The world is so beautiful.” Yes, it is. As long as we respect, value and rigorously defend every citizen’s right to participate in our elections.

opinion

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