Body Mind

Risks and living well in old age

Last month, our expert Dr Jane Fyfield attended a seminar alongside fellow geriatricians, policy makers and health professionals. Jane reflects on her takeaways from the seminar.

I recently attended a seminar in Melbourne on “Risks and living well in old age: balancing risks and autonomy”. The audience included geriatricians and other health professionals, policy makers, government representatives, researchers, consumers and carers, and aged care sector workers and administrators. The seminar was hosted by the Australian Association of Gerontology and the Australian and New Zealand Society for Geriatric Medicine.

We were there to challenge our own biases, attitudes and assumptions toward older people, particularly in relation to older people striving for autonomy in the face of declining health and increasing need for assistance to live well. We noted that often media attention can portray older persons’ behaviours as risky, but the question of autonomy is mostly overlooked and not discussed. Also, when placed in positions of trust, health professionals and carers, and aged care processes and policies can be seen as risk averse and do not consider the feelings, abilities or requirements of the older person. We were asked to consider what risk taking might be for the older person, to walk in their shoes. This risk taking might be just being assisted to make decisions that the older person is happy to, even if it is not considered sensible by others. The risk for the health professional and the carer and family might be seen to encourage decision making with the best possible evidence available, but still having to accept a decision of the older person that might not be the one the carer would like! We were also reminded that there are real risks as we age: in the diseases we are likely to face, the physical and physiological changes that take place, the financial and living constraints, the death of family and friends, the losses of these and the effects these might have on an older person.

We were encouraged, in small group discussion, to consider how we might support older people to live with risk in their lives. This risk might be living alone, pursuing activities considered beyond their capabilities, refusing health treatments and many others. This made the audience confront its own attitudes towards ageing and ask themselves whether these contribute to ageism in the aged care sector and continue the myths and prejudices we accept about older people.

We came away better educated and more thoughtful about ageing, ageism and supporting people to live well as they age.

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