Two elders in my life, Eldo and Harriet, taught me about the dignity of risk, an 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, balancing personal risk with safety.
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. 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.
This photo of Eldo was taken seven weeks to the day after he broke his back. 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.
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 including 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.
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 four months old until he went to school, and like Eldo she taught me a lot about the dignity of risk. In her 90s 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.
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—or rather, demanded—the dignity of risk.
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