That’s Greek to Me! – The Dignity of Risk

If you’re planning to do ANYTHING for the elderly, please, give them dignity!  In today’s post, I’ll talk about the dignity of risk. And before you think I’m ingenious for introducing this to you, it was not my idea. =)  The dignity of risk is a brilliant concept I learned when taking a course with the Erickson School of Aging called “Dementia 101”. The founder of Silverado Senior Living, Loren Shook, and his fellow management taught the course.  All credit goes to them.  Here we go!

The explanation of the dignity of risk

When physical health declines, it can often be dangerous for older people as they encounter every day activities.  The dignity of risk is all about treating people like humans and giving them maximum independence.  If you’re ever cared for someone whose health is declining, you’ve might have seen them do something that might have been unsafe or harmful to their health.  Maybe they were a bit wobbly when walking, but decided not to use their walker.  Or maybe they needed exercise, but refused.  When these situations occurs, I typically hear children or grandchildren say things to their loved one like, “You NEED to use your walker Mom! You’re gonna fall!!” 5 minutes later, you’ll hear the same frustration, “Don’t forget to use your walker Ma!” It becomes a broken record, which I think often dampens all conversation.

To give an older person dignity means to value who they are and their decisions.  When people get older, I’ve observed that they often get treated like children.  They’re told what they need to do and decisions are often made for them that don’t allow them to live.  “You’re going to eat this. It’s good for you.”

To give someone dignity of risk means that although we may not agree, we allow a person independence to make their own choices if at all possible.  Isn’t that part of being human? Or at least part of being an adult?  We eat Cheetos even though we know they’re bad for us, yet when we get older, let’s say past 70, people tell us what to do and sometimes decisions are often made without our consent. Maybe that’s why there are old people that we see who are dull and unengaged. They’ve been forgotten, even when it comes to their own decisions.  Imagine how that feels.

There is a flipside to all of this though and it’s not always black and white.  Sometimes allowing someone to put themselves at risk is too dangerous or considered neglect, abuse, or just plain unethical.  How do you decide? Case by case and it’s never easy.

So here’s a quiz…If an older adult falls and has some memory issues too, should you tie them in a chair so it never happens again? Or if your grandpa has weak legs yet refuses to use a cane, do you lock him inside the home? No. When my sister and her family go out for errands, my grandma, who is a whopping 96, often doesn’t want to go.  I worry about her, but we don’t force her to go because she knows the risk entailed in staying home alone and would prefer to sit in her chair home alone rather than moving in and out of a car running errands with my sister and her three kids.  We do our best to respect her decision and I believe she feels more dignified because of it.

What can you do to promote dignity and then dignity of risk in the lives of your grandparents and aging parents? One by one, encourage them to make their own decisions. Ask them what they want, what they like, and for a change, let’s listen.