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Dependence and autonomy in old age: an ethical framework for long term care
  1. J C Hughes

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    Edited by G J Agich. Cambridge University Press, 2003, £27.00, pp x−207. ISBN 0 521 00920 0

    Perhaps the change of title says it all. This is the revised edition of Agich’s Autonomy and Long Term Care, which was itself a seminal work. The new title gives us the main drift: if autonomy is important in old age, so too is dependence. Indeed, in the actual world in which Agich is keen to locate his study, autonomy and dependence intermingle as inescapable features of old age for real people. As he says: “Maintaining a sense of autonomous wellbeing is consistent with dependencies on medication or professional care if those dependencies help to maintain a more basic sense of functional integrity in those areas of life that individuals value” (p 121).

    The present book retains and renews its standing as a first rate work in the field of philosophical medical ethics. It aims “to sketch a framework for respecting autonomy in long term care”, rather than to work out practical guidelines (p 179). Nevertheless, its strength lies in Agich’s ability to move from the real world of often dependent older people to the philosophical underpinnings of our thinking about how we care for them. In so doing, Agich mounts a powerful attack on what he sees as a prevailing tendency in bioethics. It is the tendency to define autonomy “primarily in terms of a concept of human persons as rational, independent agents and decision makers, who are assumed to be competent and who can be understood without serious reference to society or history” (pp 9–10). As he says: “Influenced by liberal theory, autonomy is often treated in bioethics as a concept that primarily applies to the public realm …

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