Tilé Imo is a Lawyer and Associate Director of Health Justice Partnerships at Caxton Legal Centre’s Family, Domestic Violence and Elder Law Practice, and was the coordinating lawyer of Queensland’s first health justice partnership for elder abuse at Metro South Health.

In this blog post, Tilé looks at risk taking for older people through a human rights lens.

Risk is an inseparable part of life. It’s the tightrope walk we take every day, from crossing the street to pursuing our dreams. However, when it comes to older adults, a well-meaning but misguided desire to shield them from harm can morph into ageism. This is where the concept of risk enablement steps in, fostering autonomy while safeguarding human rights and preventing elder abuse. 

The Right to Take Risks 

Working with older people, whether in healthcare, legal centres, aged care and beyond, often involves navigating risk. The key lies in understanding individual risk tolerance and appetite within broad and diverse societal norms. Some people thrive on adventure, while others prefer a more cautious approach. What some may regard as risky behaviour, others may experience as normalised depending on personal experience, family and cultural expectations and the community in which they reside. As a practitioner influencing how risk is perceived and managed, recognising your own attitude towards risk is crucial, as personal biases can cloud your professional judgment. 

This means creating a system that integrates informed decision-making, supported decision making and human rights. 

Dignity of Risk: Respecting Autonomy, Even When We Disagree 

The concept of dignity of risk emerged in the 1970s to advocate for inclusion of children with disabilities in society. It translates to respecting a person’s right to make choices, even if those choices seem risky. This right to autonomy is a fundamental human right, echoed in amendments to Queensland’s guardianship laws that emphasise person-centred decision-making. 

Striking a balance is crucial. A decision to override autonomy must be compliant with the human rights decision-making framework respecting various rights, such as, the right to privacy, culture, family, freedom of movement and equality before the law. Older adults, like everyone else, have the right to take risks and make mistakes in the pursuit of self-agency. For example, a seemingly risky decision like a late-life marriage and pooling of resources might not always pan out, but it can also bring companionship and other advantages. 

Mitigating Risk, Not Eliminating It 

Before imposing restrictions, it’s vital to identify the specific risks and apply a proportionality test as to which would be the least restrictive approach. Can less tolerable risks be minimised rather than eliminated? Is there a way to support the individual’s choice while mitigating serious harm? Open communication plays a key role here. Sharing information clearly empowers informed decision-making. 

This doesn’t mean rubber-stamping everything. Sometimes, balancing individual risk-taking with the rights of others requires careful consideration. However, a blanket “no” based solely on age or perceived vulnerability can be a slippery slope towards ageist discrimination, and even worse, elder abuse. Evaluating decision-making capacity should be based on the specific situation, not a pre-conceived notion of risk. 

Empowering Choice, Preventing Abuse 

Risk enablement fosters a culture of respect for older adults’ autonomy. It safeguards against elder abuse, which can take various forms, from financial exploitation to physical neglect. By empowering informed choices and supporting decision making (including risk-taking), we will hopefully be enabling a dignified and fulfilling life for older adults. 

Some helpful resources and starting points if you are looking to expand your risk enablement practice: 

  • Bigby, C., Douglas, J.M., & Vassallo, S. (2018). Enabling Risk: Putting Positives First. An online learning resource for disability support workers. Retrieved from www.enablingriskresource.com.au 
  • Caxton Legal Centre also developed self-paced learning modules titled, Human Rights in Practice: Capacity, Decisions and Options. There is a discussion of risk mitigation in the module about supported decision making. The modules are available to access for free as a guest via Moodle here.
18 June 2024
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