The Right to Vote -- Even for People with Dementia

  • Today's New York Times article titled “States Face Decisions on Who Is Mentally Fit to Vote,” by Pam Belluck, affected me far more strongly than I would have guessed, had I been told the article was being written.


    Throughout a good portion of my mother’s adult years, she had been an active member in the League of Women Voters. I was raised with the importance of voting smack dab in our front yard, as with each election there would be a sign that said, simply, VOTE. The women in the League would go out and put these signs up in yards (with permission) before each election. My recollection is that it didn’t matter whether it was city, state or national. The signs went up. My mom was one of the people putting them up.

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    My dad and uncles were World War II veterans. My brother is a Vietnam veteran. My nephew is an Iraq veteran. None of us are war mongers. Some of us would qualify as “doves,” to use the quaint Vietnam era phrase. But we are patriots in that we believe in the right to vote (among many other rights).


    The last years of my mother’s life, she suffered from dementia. The last ten years of Dad’s life, he was in a severely demented state, due to brain surgery that was meant to correct a brain injury suffered during World War II maneuvers. Did they vote when they had dementia? You bet.


    They were not only conscious that it was time to vote, they felt obligated to do so. I would never have attempted to deny them this right. I got them absentee ballots, as it was too difficult for them to go to the polls (during some of the time). We would go over the ballot, and I would answer their questions, if they had them. We talked about issues and candidates whenever they felt up to it. I always made sure Mom had her newspaper. (Dad could no longer see well enough to read). I helped them both through the physical process of marking the ballots.


    Was my being present stamping on their rights? Perhaps. They didn’t have the privacy they normally would have had. But, we all agreed that it was more important for them to vote their conscience, and get the marks in the right spot, than it was to be alone and chance voting for someone they didn’t want. We discussed each candidate and issue and they explained what they thought. I helped them make the marks that would reflect their choices.


    I must add that that, often, they were voting differently than I was. That was fine with me. They were voting, and that’s what mattered.


    Were they technically “sane?” I’m sure when, at the clinic, people noticed me wheeling my dad through to an appointment, and he was in one of his delusional states – speaking Spanish, his college minor, to all he saw, nodding and smiling as though he were in a parade – I’m sure many would say this man was not sane. And, often, he was not. But I knew my dad and what his values were, and I knew his political views.


    When Mom would say one thing, one day, and another the next; when Mom would change her mind with the wind – was she sane enough to vote? Again, I knew her core values. These values didn’t change.


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    Even when I tried to explain changes in the political parties, as the years went on, if they disagreed with me, so be it. I helped them mark their ballot as they wanted it marked. They had already suffered so many losses, due to age and dementia. Voting was their right, and I was not going to take that one away, too.


    Their right to vote was, to me, fundamental. They were citizens. Dementia didn’t change that. I did my best to help them express themselves in all other ways. Why wouldn’t I do that with voting?

    Also read comments to Expert Caregiver Dorian Martin's SharePost on voting rights for those with dementia, and her follow-up on families' feedback on who should be allowed to vote.

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Published On: June 19, 2007