Respecting Elders' Dignity May Require Accepting Risk

It’s difficult to watch our parents age. As their hair grays, wrinkles form and age spots multiply, we adult children can find ourselves feeling protective. We want to keep them healthy. We want to know that they are safely at home when there’s the slightest risk of bad weather. We don’t want them taking risks that could result in an injury. That’s love, after all, and parents appreciate being loved. It’s a mistake, however, to make yourself director of your parents’ lives simply because they are piling on years.

Think about it. Barring dementia – and as much as we hear about dementia, not everyone over 65 has become unable to make decisions – our elders should be able to exercise their rights as adults. Aging should increase dignity not take it away. Maturing should earn us respect for what we’ve been through, not derision for being a bit weathered physically and somewhat different in how we may process information. If you carefully read the first paragraph of this article you’ll see that much of what I describe sounds like raising children. Ouch!

Making it legal

I’m a strong believer in families being realistic. Your parents should have a Power of Attorney for health care with a health directive or living will. This is the document where people assign someone else to make decisions for them should they become unable to do so. They should have a financial Power Of Attorney for the same reason. Wills should be prepared and parents should let their adult children, or whomever they choose to represent them, know where all legal and health papers are kept. Parents should also openly talk with their children about their views about preferred care should they become unable to care for themselves, as well as their views about end-of-life care.

We all die someday. If our culture could start to be open about that fact that we all die, there would be fewer adult children struggling to bring up uncomfortable topics of conversation, and perhaps fewer adult children prematurely trying to take over their parents’ lives. Therefore, while the basics of legal measures and end-of-life wishes need to be discussed, once that is accomplished, then it’s time for everyone to get on with living. “Everyone” includes the elders.

What if living means risking injury?

That is the question many adult children ask. Older bones don’t mend quickly and sometimes a break can be life threatening. Pneumonia or flu can also be life threatening. Some adult children would like to wrap their elders in bubble wrap and keep them safely in their favorite chair. But staying safe, yet not doing the things that one loves - at least those things one is still capable of doing - is no way to live the last years of life.

Most older people want to live not simply exist. In fact, if you have an elder who is listless and uninterested in life, it actually may be time to intervene, at least enough to get them to see a doctor. However, that intervention isn’t because of age. It’s because of possible depression or other illness, whether it’s mental or physical. This can happen to anyone at any age.

My point is that aging doesn’t automatically make a people so fragile, so vulnerable, so befuddled that they need to have complete oversight when it comes to living their lives. Adult children who love their parents want the best for them. The best means that you don’t interfere with your parents’ choices unless true danger exists, such as with dementia.

Gray hair, wrinkles and skin spots aren’t terminal issues. They are battle scars worth noting and respecting. When you offer help to your elders, focus on what they can do rather what they can't, even if that involves some risk. Offer help when needed, but do so with respect.

Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at