Dignity of Risk and Caring for an Elder

Growing old should not mean that you lose control of your daily life and all the decisions that go along with it. Yet too often that is exactly what happens. If you are a caregiver, have you heard yourself saying “you NEED to use your walker, you might fall”, “you need to drink that water”, “let me carry that for you, you might drop it”, “don’t do that, you might fall”?

the dignity of risk

Even though the person has lived with and managed their risks all their adult life, suddenly everyone else is telling them what they can and can’t do. And based on what? Safety? For what end, hanging around waiting to die?

There is a wonderful concept called “The Dignity of Risk”, which acknowledges that life experiences come with risk and that we must respect a person’s self-determination and autonomy and allow them to make their own choices about which experiences are worth a risk.

I understand that there is an issue of safety here. I’m not saying ignore the risks. But I’d like to see risks balanced more thoughtfully against the person’s preferences for how they want to live their days and what they do or do not want to do. They’ve been making decisions all their life about what they choose to do, what they want to try, what they want to eat. They weighed the risks of eating fast food, of skiing, of taking a new job, of buying lottery tickets. And they deserve our respect and support in continuing to make their choices.

As caregivers, I’d encourage us to allow the elders we work with, or are related to, to live their lives as independently and freely as possible. Listen to their priorities and concerns. Help them think through their decisions. Yes, there is that pesky risk factor but how does it weigh against the dignity of their life and the loss of life experiences? They have the right to choose their risks. Let’s support them in that.

photo credit