October 8, 2020 | The Philadelphia Inquirer

Ahead of a divisive election, this Penn doctor is working to ensure people with dementia can vote

Jason Karlawish’s interest in ensuring that Americans with dementia can vote goes back 20 years to another contentious election, the one between George W. Bush and Al Gore that made the “hanging chads” on Florida ballots famous.

Chads aside, Karlawish realized that the confusing ballot design led people with perfectly fine brains to make mistakes. A doctor who treats Alzheimer’s patients and is codirector of the Penn Memory Center, Karlawish wondered what voting had been like for people with cognitive impairment.

Around the same time, he talked about voting with a group of caregivers for the center’s patients. Some said a patient shouldn’t vote if he doesn’t understand the election. Some gave help when needed. Others said they voted for their loved one.

Karlawish saw a fascinating, multidisciplinary topic that had barely been studied, so he jumped in. He learned that people with dementia have the legal right to vote but are often disenfranchised by professional or family caregivers who decide they’re not capable of making good decisions. The law, he said, doesn’t care whether you can make good decisions. In 2008, he worked with the American Bar Association on a pilot program in Vermont that helped people in long-term care settings with dementia vote.

That laid the groundwork for a new guide produced by the Memory Center and the ABA Commission on Aging. It explains how caregivers can help voters with dementia and other forms of cognitive impairment.

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