Incompetent until proven not guilty?

Acknowledgement of country

Who is incompetent to make a will or to act as one’s own agent by virtue of their age? At least one law firm in Western Australia seems to think it’s all right to demand proof of competence.

Everyone over eighty has to provide a doctor’s letter,‘ the receptionist said when I called to make an appointment.

I wrote about my experience in a blog, ‘Crazy-making – why the world seems mad.’ I’m still smarting under the indignity of the requirement to prove I do not have cognitive impairment.

Why I’m so grumpy

My whole life seems to have been fighting battles against stereotypes and I’m sick of it. First, the stereotypes affecting women. We call this discrimination sexism.

Here are a few examples of how sexism has affected me:

  • My parents thought girls did not need higher education because ‘Girls only get married, and their education is wasted,’ and ‘girls get married and their husbands support them’. Like many other young women of my generation, I left school at just 15. Our brothers went to university, had fun, passed and failed.
  • Divorced with six children to support, a full-time job and a substantial deposit, I could not get a bank loan to buy a house. (Thank goodness for a competent salesman and a building society which eventually took a risk on my suitability!)
  • Throughout my working life, I earned considerably less than a man, even though I did work of equal value.
  • I ended up with far less superannuation than I would have if I’d been male.

The next battleground is ageism in all its forms and insidious applications. It affects men as well as women, and for some of us begins when we are in our fifties.

Ageism and its implications

This is what the World Health Organisation has to say about ageism:

This is ageism: the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or ourselves based on age. Ageism is pervasive, affects people of all ages from childhood onwards and has serious and far-reaching consequences for people’s health, well-being and human rights.

What does it mean to be cognitively incompetent?

Here’s a definition from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cognitive impairment is when a person has trouble
remembering, learning new things, concentrating,
or making decisions that affect their everyday
life. Cognitive impairment ranges from mild to
severe. With mild impairment, people may begin
to notice changes in cognitive functions, but still
be able to do their everyday activities. Severe
levels of impairment can lead to losing the ability
to understand the meaning or importance of
something and the ability to talk or write, resulting
in the inability to live independently

Many conditions cause incompetence, including damage to the brain due to cerebral ischemia, head trauma, toxins such as alcohol or medications, excess stress hormones or degenerative dementia such as Alzheimer’s Disease. People with mild cognitive impairment still function in the community.

How many people in their eighties are cognitively incompetent?

For some reason, the Australian Bureau of Statistics does not provide a clear answer. People over eighty are lumped together with those in their nineties and hundreds, rather than taken as a special group. To group people in this way is also ageist.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare statistics say that about 30% of men and women over eighty are living with dementia of some kind. That means that more than two-thirds of this age group are not cognitively compromised.

Takeaway lesson?

Lesson learnt? I should, of course, have told the receptionist I did not need an appointment after all. No one need put up with ageist nonsense or stereotyping from professionals or anyone else.

We older folk should avoid individuals, organisations and institutions whose policies include such blatant ageism. We should call out disrespect wherever and whenever it occurs and take our business elsewhere.

I’d love to read your comments!

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Photo fo Maureen Helen at Thody wedding


  1. How shocking to read of your experiences…is what I’d like to say. But, truth is, I’ve experiences that parallel yours, as, of course, such entrenched societal conditioning cannot be different just because I’m a few years younger.
    It’s infuriating, as you say.
    I recall the first time I was slapped with ageism, and it did shock me, especially in the context. I had no response. I just slipped into shocked silence. I’ll not do that again. I’ll call it out.
    Thank you for your post.

    1. Yes, such blatant ageism shocked me. I don’t know what stopped me from reacting immediately or why I haven’t confronted the organisation. I guess because my reserves are a bit low, and that’s one of the elements of ageism, anyway.
      I’m sure if you are over 50 you will have experienced ageism – its part of the fabric of our society, as you point out. We all need to support each other in calling out bad behaviour and practice doing it regularly.

  2. I’ve not experienced ageism… yet. Unless being treated like a child is part of it.
    I have my nails professionally polished every 3-4 weeks, I’ve done this for many years.
    A few months back, at the Long Covid clinic, a physiotherapist took my hand and remarked. “Oh, look at your pretty nails; aw bless..”
    I cannot imagine she would make the same comment to someone twenty years younger.

    1. Oh, dear Sue W! Being infantalised (treated like a child) is one of the most insidious forms of ageism because the implication is that we no longer think and act like adults. And that, ‘…aw, bless…’. No one should like that to a strange adult. I love it when, for example, one of my granddaughters (in her 40s) says that to me, but that’s been part of the pattern of our caring relationship forever. One painful part of being patronised is that it seems churlish to say something unpleasant when a professional or other person thinks they are being nice rather than putting us down. It happens especially in the ‘caring professions’ because we are often feeling at our most vulnerable when we are not well.

        1. Nothing paranoid about recognising ageism, Sue W. And we need to call it out, as often as we dare and as politely as we can. I guess it is an educational process for those of us who are victims of insidious and overt ageism, as well as for those who do not know that what they are doing is harmful to others (especially harmful to our our dignity, and sometimes in other ways.

  3. Hi Maureen, thank you again for this blog — I’ve been scrolling through several of them and they are all full of wonderful gems – and so many things I can relate to.
    I am 70 – all my life I have been known as someone with high energy, a free spirit and an infectious smile. What’s fascinating to me is how at 70, I am determined to remain full of energy, free-spirited and sharing my infectious smile — even though I know and believe I have ‘nothing to prove’ – I am trying to prove ageism is NOT OKAY! So, I lead embodied movement dance workshops and when someone younger says, I can’t believe you’re 70, I ask, what age would you believe I am? For some reason, that always seems to stymie them. 🙂 I also like to remind them that the number of years I’ve gone around the sun has nothing to do with my capacity to dance and more to do with a passion and a lifetime dancing. Why give it up now?
    Ageism is as prevelant in Canada as it is in Australia. I believe we must all contribute to changing the narrative around aging to a more positive, affirming and strengths-based story of the gifts, wisdom and talents we have to share, rather than the burden we are often considered to be as we age.
    Anyway, what I really wanted to say was, Thank you. You are inspiring me to keep dancing. And shouting out loud – I am not getting old, I’m getting wiser~:)

    1. Louise, I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to respond to your warm response to my post, ‘Incompetent until proven not guilty?’ As you probably read between the lines, my life has been a bit disrupted over the past few months, and is now getting back on track. Glad you enjoyed scrolling!
      Those of us with high energy cause our friends to query what is the matter with us, and I’m as determined to keep on enjoying life, and learning as I ever was. Seventy now seems such a long time ago. The year I turned seventy I published a book; accepted a Doctorate in Writing; retired from full time work; married (second time); and learned to sail a yacht. I have nowhere near that energy sixteen years later, but do have plenty of energy still.
      How wonderful that you dance. That’s something I do vicariously through my grandchildren and great grandchildren. It has been a source of sadness for me that my mother would not let me learn to dance. Please keep dancing. And shouting out loud – it doens’t matter what the message is, or how foolish others think we are.

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