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Capacity Assessment Across Functional Domains in Later Life  

Benjamin T. Mast and Diana DiGasbarro

Clinicians conduct capacity evaluations to determine an older adult’s ability to make and execute a decision within key domains of functioning. Questions of capacity often arise when an older adult experiences a decline in cognitive functioning due to Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, or severe psychiatric illness, for example. Capacity is related to legal competency, and a lack of capacity may be proved by providing evidence that an older adult is unable to understand the act or decision in question; appreciate the context and consequences of the decision or act; reason about the potential harms and benefits; or express a choice. Capacity is domain-specific, time-specific, and decision-specific. Domains include financial capacity, medical treatment and research consent capacity, driving capacity, sexual consent capacity, and voting capacity. Each capacity domain encompasses activities that may vary in complexity or risk, and thus require different levels of capacity. For example, within the medical treatment consent capacity domain, an older adult may lack the capacity to consent to a complicated and risky surgical procedure while retaining the capacity to consent to a routine blood draw. Clinicians determine capacity by using a combination of tools including capacity assessment instruments, task-specific functional evaluations, interviews with the patient and family members, measures of cognitive functioning, and consideration of social, physical, and mental health factors. Extensive research has been conducted to determine the reliability and validity of a variety of capacity assessment instruments for many domains. These instruments generally assess the patient’s responses to vignettes pertaining to the domain in question, information gleaned from structured and semi-structured interviews, functional ability, or a combination of these methods. Although there is still need for more research, especially in emerging domains, capacity assessments help to protect vulnerable older adults from harm while allowing them to retain the highest possible level of autonomy.