Aim: To review critically the traditional concept of autonomy, propose an alternative relational interpretation of autonomy, and discuss how this would operate in identifying and addressing ethical issues that arise in the context of nursing home care for older adults.
Background: Respect for patient autonomy has been the cornerstone of clinical bioethics for several decades. Important though this principle is, there is debate on how to interpret the core concept of autonomy. We review the appeal of the traditional approach to autonomy in health care and then identify some of the difficulties with this conception.
Methods: We use philosophical methods to explain and discuss the traditional and relational conceptions of autonomy and we illuminate our discussion with examples of various contextual applications.
Conclusion: We support the relational conception of autonomy as offering a richer, more contextualized understanding of autonomy which attends to the social, political and economic conditions that serve as background to an agent's deliberations. To illuminate these ideas, we discuss the situation of frail older adults who frequently find their autonomy limited not only by their medical conditions but also by cultural prejudices against the aged and by the conditions commonly found within the nursing homes in which many reside. We propose ways of improving the relational autonomy of this population.
© 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.