Two Elders in my life, Eldo and Harriet, taught me about the dignity of risk – one aspect of resilience and independence that is often overlooked as people age.  It’s far too common for well intentioned helpers to pressure older adults – especially those with functional challenges – into a safety bubble. The dignity of risk simply allows people regardless of age or functional ability to continue making the choice of how to live – how to balance personal risk with safety.

Eldo’s Story

At age 82 Eldo fell off a haystack and broke his back and neck.  His friends were devastated, convinced Eldo was “done”; but when I walked into his hospital room the first thing he said to me was, “Bleep de bleep (use your imagination) I can’t believe I ruined my whole summer of horseback riding!”

I was amazed! He didn’t get the memo saying he was finished riding. He was just furious that he’d messed up his whole summer!  Next, Eldo called in the nurse to tell her the neck brace was causing him a lot of pain.  She was patronizing, “Well, you can’t expect it to be comfortable”.  He replied very directly, “I’m not asking for comfortable, I’m asking for tolerable.  Get the orthopedic on the phone”.

I knew the building blocks of resilience included optimism and hope, self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to impact outcomes) and a sense of control. But here it was in living color as Eldo took charge of his recovery. He knew he would recover, and he knew what he needed and asked for it!  A different neck brace brought him immediate relief and a sense of control over his destiny.

Seven weeks to the day after he broke his back, Eldo was riding again. His mindset of full recovery, his rejection of negative expectations of aging, and the “dignity of risk” all played a role in his recovery. Recovery is far more than just physical and his doctor – a horseback rider himself – realized how critical it was for Eldo to live his passion. How different the outcome could have been if his doctor, family, and friends had insisted he retreat to the safety of his recliner.

Harriet’s Story

When my son Cole was born I needed part‑time childcare. Harriett was interested in the job, but I was a worried.  She had significant physical challenges; advanced osteoporosis with spinal kyphosis (the rounded upper spine people often call a dowagers hump). After making a career out of advising people to focus on possibilities, not disabilities, could I live it?  So we had a frank talk. “I’m concerned. I don’t want you or Cole to get hurt.  How can we make this work?”  With equal parts amusement and determination she said, “Oh, I’ve had a bad back my whole life and took care of my own kids. I don’t know why it would be any different now”.  Harriet was 80 years old at the time.

So we came up with adaptive strategies.  We put the crib next to the bed so Cole could climb out of the crib, onto the bed, and then to the floor – no lifting required. Harriet watched him from the time he was 4 months old until he went to school, and like Eldo she taught me a lot about the dignity of risk. In her 90’s she used a walker and lived in a second floor apartment with no elevator. People often pressured her to move to a ground floor apartment to which she replied, “I want to see the mountains when I wake up in the morning. I’ll scoot up on my butt if I have to!”  She lived there until she was 100 years old.   

 So, Harriett, frail with many physical challenges, and Eldo, out riding horses in the mountains had two very different aging experiences. Yet they shared a common trait – the ability to use the tools of resilience to live life on their terms. And they were both afforded, no – demanded, the dignity of risk.

First published at Silver Nest 

A Senior Housing Forum post brought an issue forward that I’ve been yelled at in conferences for even bringing up!  Resident prejudice against those with disabilities and the SL Industries complacency.  It’s far past time for senior living to just say NO to disability discrimination. Besides being an ADA issue for communities (lawsuits are being filed and won), it underscores a prejudice that SL has enabled for fear that potential residents won’t move in if the “see” frail residents. You would not allow residents to insist that no-one of a different race or religion should be allowed in the dining room so why allow disability discrimination?  I know residents can be very vocal about this issue, but the world has changed and age is no excuse to be inappropriate!

SL can drive change when it: 1- invests in strategic initiatives to create not just socialization, but connection and community among residents of all abilities/disabilities (i.e. working together on purpose-projects in the broader community), 2- makes it clear from DAY ONE that every resident is valued equally and treated equally (i.e. marketing professionals proudly declare how inclusion supports their mission statements), 3- embraces the disability movement model of providing adaptive strategies to overcome disabilities and live fully in-spite of challenges (rather than strategies to merely “cope” with disabilities), 4-confronts disability discrimination head-on with residents, families, and staff (have policies in place to address issues).

There is a great video at Real Beauty Sketches (Dove) focused on how women see themselves compared to how others see them.  It really made me wonder what the results would be if this project was done with older adults.  Would they focus on outward signs of aging?  Would others?  I remember when I was in my 40’s and starting to “worry” about wrinkles.  At the time I was directing the Young at Heart exercise program for older adults at MSU, and it occured to me that when I looked at the members – most 70+ years old – I didn’t see wrinkles, I saw smiling eyes and faces of friends.  How would you describe yourself to someone sketching you without looking at you?  What do you see when you look at others? How do images of aging impact self perceptions and perceptions of others.

I'm happy to report that the fight against ageism got both a boost and a spotlight last week! I recently co-wrote a chapter titled, Media Portrayal of Ageing, for a book published by the Global Council on Ageing. The book, Global Ageing, Peril or Promise?, was launched at the Global Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland on January 26th, and Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization called it a "must read".

See below (News & Updates) to download a pdf of the whole book or download the chapter Media Portrayal of Ageing. The chapter explores how ageism got a foothold in society and how media and marketing images reinforce negative stereotypes that influence health beliefs and behaviors. It also offers some practical solutions for confronting and re-scripting the negative story of aging.

The "X" Factor
Age has less to do with who a person is and what they're capable of than almost any other single factor, yet it often becomes a direct or indirect barrier to an individual reaching his or her personal potential.

For example, consider that young people with disabilities receive resources, opportunities and social support to overcome disabilities and excel in spite of them. Yet adults who are challenged with a disability later in life are often simply given tools to cope with disabilities. There's a profound difference between a mindset of coping with, versus overcoming, challenges – one that directly impacts expectations, interactions and outcomes.

The successes of the disability movement come from their mindset of looking at possibilities rather than disabilities. As individuals and as a society, we can work for the same kind of positive change in expectations and opportunities for older adults challenged by functional limitations.

"I believe the health care crisis is not going to be solved by government programs," Kay continues, "but instead by individuals inspired into action for their own well-being, and by companies worldwide who mobilize resources to reach out to their customers with healthy lifestyle strategies."