November 19, 2019
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Alzheimer’s patient voted even though ‘she couldn’t name a candidate,’ daughter says

Courtesy of Byram family
Courtesy of Byram family
Michelle Byram, her mom, Kathy Lennon, 65, and daughter Maile Sawyer. Lennon, who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's and doesn't know who is president, voted by absentee ballot last week at a senior living facility where she lives.

WINTERPORT, Maine — A 65-year-old woman who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2012 and nowadays doesn’t know what year it is or who is currently president, according to her daughter, voted last week by absentee ballot.

“She doesn’t know who the president is now … and I’m pretty confident that she couldn’t even name a candidate,” Winterport resident Michelle Byram said Monday about her mother, Kathy Lennon, who resides at a Bangor senior living facility.

The manager of the facility said Monday that she could not verify the diagnosis of Lennon due to privacy reasons. Bangor City Clerk Lisa Goodwin also could not say whether Lennon has Alzheimer’s. She said city staff do not get access to that information. Goodwin said the city is bound by state law when it comes to residential living facilities and absentee voting.

“There is nothing in the law that prevents someone with Alzheimer’s from voting,” Goodwin said. “If they qualify as a registered voter in our community, they are allowed to vote. Even if they are in a facility, and have some disabilities, they are still allowed to vote.”

Byram learned her mother voted by absentee ballot after a visit.

“I saw she had an ‘I voted’ sticker, so I asked the staff some questions,” she said. “They told me city officials come in and conduct absentee voting with the residents there.”

Byram went straight to social media and posted about how unhappy she was.

“I would NEVER have allowed it,” Byram posted. “I cannot begin to wrap my head around how many votes are captured this way throughout this country. To say I’m outraged is a massive understatement.”

She called the Bangor city clerk’s office and the secretary of state and learned that state laws were created to ensure everyone has the ability to vote, even those in long-term care or assisted living facilities who may not be able to physically get to voting booths.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Monday that years ago lobbying groups would get people in nursing homes absentee ballots and would help them register to vote.

“The dirty little secret of getting out the vote was it’s getting out their vote,” Dunlap said. “There are some pretty interesting stories of this happening back in the day.”

Nowadays, Maine state law requires city and town clerks to go to licensed residential care or assisted housing facilities with six or more beds to register residents who want to vote and to hand out absentee ballots.

“Now, you have people in there with no stake in the election … making sure they have an opportunity to vote,” Dunlap said.

Each and every person is different, he said, adding that “people with dementia can still make decisions.”

Byram, who stressed she is very happy with the care her mother is getting at the residential assisted living facility, said she was upset because she knows her mother is not capable of voting competently with her Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s attacks the brain and causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior, and is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. Around 37,000 Mainers suffer from the disease.

“I’m hoping things [on the ballot] were left blank, but who knows,” the Winterport resident said.

Another thing that upset her is that she didn’t know about the law. She quickly learned that she is not alone.

“I was surprised. I usually try to stay on top of things,” Byram said. “I didn’t realize that was a thing that could take place. I had the Facebook post and that got shared over 1,000 times. I was surprised that so many other people were shocked.”

Byram said she knows more than anyone that each and every dementia patient is different, with each having good days and bad days, and that creating a blanket rule concerning them all and voting would be difficult.

“I’m not suggesting all memory care patients lose their right to vote. That is not what I’m suggesting,” she said. “I just think there must be some sort of criteria.”

 



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