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Journal Article

‘I am your son, mother’: severe dementia and duties to visit parents who can’t recognise you


de Vries,  Bouke
Ethics, Law and Politics, MPI for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Max Planck Society;

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de Vries, B. (2020). ‘I am your son, mother’: severe dementia and duties to visit parents who can’t recognise you. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy, 23, 17-24. doi:10.1007/s11019-019-09931-5.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0006-F1F6-4
It is commonly assumed that many, if not most, adult children have moral duties to visit their parents when they can do so at reasonable cost. However, whether such duties persist when the parents lose the ability to recognise their children, usually due to dementia, is more controversial. Over 40% of respondents in a public survey from the British Alzheimer’s Society said that it was “pointless” to keep up contact at this stage. Insofar as one cannot be morally required to do pointless things, this would suggest that children are relieved of any duties to visit their parents. In what appears to be the only scholarly treatment of this issue, Claudia Mills has defended this view, arguing that our duties to visit our parents require a type of relationship that is lost when parents no longer remember who their children are. This article challenges Mills’ argument. Not only can children be duty-bound to visit parents who have lost the ability to recognise them, I argue that many children do in fact have such duties. As I show, these duties are grounded in any special interests that their parents have in their company; the fact that visiting their parents might allow them to comply with generic duties of sociability; and/or the fact that such visits allow them to express any gratitude that they owe their parents.