Is it legal for a dementia patient to sign papers regarding his medical care?

1 answer | Last updated: Oct 01, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

the nursing home made my husband an appt. with outside psychiatrist instead of his regular one. I refused to sign papers. they had my husband to sign papers, even though he suffers from dementia and has no idea what he signed. Is this legal?

Expert Answers

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

You mention a couple things that are potentially troublesome: The nursing home's insistence on using its own doctor"”and the forced signed consent.

Residents don't leave their rights at the nursing home door. A federal law, the Nursing Home Reform Act, gives residents the right to be treated by their own physicians. So the nursing home might have violated that law by having your husband evaluated or treated by its own physician.

What was the reasoning? Were administrators interested in getting some diagnosis? Evaluating his condition for proper treatment? Monitoring his current medications? You'll want to know this reasoning as part of the complete picture of your husband's care. And if the response is that the nursing home simply prefers to use its own doctors, you'll have additional important information"”and additional evidence that the nursing home likely violated the law.

Second, if your husband's dementia is so severe that he is unable to understand the meaning of what he's signing, then his signature basically has no legal effect. (The flipside is that if he can understand these basics, then he is probably able to give his own legal consent.)

You will also want to think about what you want to happen going forward. Would an apology be sufficient? Do you want a written assurance that your husband will receive treatment only from the doctors specified?

I am assuming that you have voiced your concerns with the nursing home administration. If not, ask to make an appointment with the owner and make your complaint then and there.

You might also contact the nursing home ombudsman"”the objective person assigned to the facility to smooth over problems for residents and family members. Contact information for the particular ombudsman should be posted at the nursing home. Or you can find it through the website operated by the national office at