Protecting elderly loved ones from risk can be a difficult task

By Valerie
March 8, 2013


“Let me show you how I get into my shower,” said Mrs. Johnson.

Before I could explain that it wasn’t necessary, Mrs. Johnson (fully clothed) “jumped” into the shower. Mr. Johnson just looked at me as if to say, “Don’t bother trying to stop her.”

Let me back up and explain a few things.

Firstly, Mrs. Johnson isn’t a client.

Secondly, she literally jumped into the shower while hanging onto a grab bar installed inside the shower.

Thirdly, Mrs. Johnson was 91 years old.

I was in my early 20s working at a student practicum for a geriatric centre in Toronto.

This lovely couple attended sessions in the weight room where I helped to implement strength training programs. They invited me over for tea one day after learning about some of my athletic accomplishments.

Turns out Mrs. Johnson was quite the hurdler in her day, hence the modified hurdling technique getting into the shower.

Even at such a youthful age, it was clear to me that Mrs. Johnson’s bathing methods were risky (although when I questioned her on the risk of falling, her reply was, “It’s not as if I turn the shower on before I get in, dearie”).

It was equally clear that any advice given by someone a quarter of her age would fall on deaf ears.

We get many caregivers and concerned family members calling and asking how to determine the extent of risk as it relates to aging loved ones.

In general, the term “living at risk” means that aging individuals are free to engage in activities that might be considered risky so long as they are mentally competent and don’t place others at risk or expose them to harm.

With age comes a higher likelihood of exposure to risk than other adults. Changes in health, presence of chronic disease or varying mental capacity can make elderly loved ones more vulnerable to accidents or injuries.

Morally, caregivers and concerned family members have an obligation to protect loved ones from harm.

It’s a fine line.

Smothering your aging mother or great-uncle can also undermine self-esteem and confidence. Having the ability to make choices about how to go about one’s day is not only a right but a fundamental underpinning of living a dignified and independent life.

Putting it into practice, however, is rather tricky.

How can a son who guides mountaineering clients to altitudes of 20,000 feet reprimand his 85-year-old mother for using a ladder to clean her windows?

Before placing limits on your aging loved one’s abilities or becoming your dad’s risk manager, ask yourself these questions:

Family caregivers are often challenged to respect their loved one’s choices and accept risk while continuing to offer support. It shouldn’t, however, be limited to non-interference.

Caregivers also have the right to negotiate ways of managing risk to protect their aging loved one’s value, beliefs and safety.

But that’s a whole other story — one we’ll tackle in two weeks’ time!

Wendy Johnstone is a gerontologist and is the founder of Keystone Eldercare Planning. Her column runs in the Comox Valley Record every second Friday.

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