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Understanding mental capacity
Understanding mental capacity

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2.1 The concept of personhood

The concept of personhood relates to everyone, including children, people with learning disabilities and older people. Older people are likely to have lived their lives with a relatively intact sense of themselves as individual people, but the process of ageing and dementia in particular can put that sense of self at risk. More importantly it can change other people’s perceptions of them. It is important therefore to think about the personhood of whoever needs help making a decision. You will learn what personhood is in a minute.

A ‘person’ is someone who is worthy of our moral consideration in our dealings with them; this includes every human being. Personhood, however, is a central element for debate in moral philosophy. 

Activity 3 Personhood

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Watch the video below about personhood. Would you ever consider someone to have greatly diminished personhood or not to be a person at all?

What is personhood? [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

This is especially relevant in relation to older people, who have lived long and varied lives and whose personhood has never before been in question. Assessing their mental capacity often brings into focus how much their personhood is accepted by others. Write your thoughts in the text box.

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It is useful to reflect on and make a conscious choice about the nature of each individual’s ‘personhood’ and how this is defined, even though this may seem a rather difficult or even an alarming prospect.

You should never assume that older people with impaired capacity have surrendered any of their personhood. Mental capacity legislation clearly indicates that every assessment must be founded on the basis that every individual is presumed to have capacity. Any subsequent deterioration can only be addressed through the courts, for example where someone is in a persistent vegetative state with an irreversible loss of brain function, and where a court may legally authorise a medical team to withdraw treatment, leading to the death of that person.