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In past columns, I have addressed the challenges, and options available, when an aging parent needs assistance.  In some cases, a “power of attorney” may be sufficient.  This document allows a parent to transfer to a trusted child (or other person) the authority to also handle certain responsibilities on behalf of the parent.   

At the other end of the spectrum is a guardianship, in which a person (often a child) is appointed to make decisions for someone who is mentally incapacitated.  A guardianship is intended to protect incapacitated individuals from themselves and those who would take advantage of them.

However, a guardianship is an extreme remedy.  When a guardian is appointed, the person to be protected is essentially stripped of the ability to make his or her own decisions.   It should be used only in limited circumstances.

What if a person is not fully incapacitated, but still has serious cognitive limitations?  Must his or her rights be taken away in order to provide proper protection? In recent years, a new approach has begun to take root.  Its focus is to preserve the liberty and rights of a person in need, balanced with the appropriate level of protection.  This approach is called Supported Decision-Making.

Supported Decision-Making allows people with disabilities to keep their rights, including the right to make their own choices.  Trusted advisors, including potentially friends, family, or professionals, serve as supporters. These supporters help the person in need to understand, make, and communicate his or her own choices.

Currently, there is no legal process formally adopting Supported Decision-Making.  Nor should there be any illusion that Supported Decision-Making will be simple to implement.  By its very nature, it is intended to allow individuals with needs to utilize their capabilities but have appropriate support when their limits have been met.  The process will be unique in each case.  However, Supported Decision-Making will also help vulnerable adults to retain their dignity . . .  and their rights.