There is no secret to the fact that I was a challenging child for my parents to raise. In fact, I suspect that most people who know me would expect nothing less. I was always very (my mother might have said “overly”) opinionated and never reluctant to express my viewpoints. And, for good or for ill, I would dig in my heels and not be swayed by either persuasion or authority. I have a vivid memory of my gentle mother shaking her head and saying, ruefully, “You always think you know better,” which meant, of course, that she disagreed but that she didn’t want to take up the fight.
I think about those words, and the sentiment, in the context of the work that we do with older adults. It is an easy trap to fall into, as well meaning professionals, to think that we always “know better.” We know what time someone should wake up. We know what medications they should take. We know what they should wear, what they should eat, and we even know how they should spend their days.
Our intentions are, I believe, pure. We want to take care of those who live with us, we want to keep them safe and well, clean and fed, engaged and entertained. And we believe, with real fervor, that this is in the best interests of the people we serve. We have the experience and expertise to “know better” and we operate from the foundation of certainty.
Truth be told, however, we don’t “know better.” We just don’t. Elders, regardless of their physical or cognitive limitations, still have the ability to make choices. Each of them still has a “back story” that is unique to that individual. What was their career? What were their hobbies? What were their passions? What foods did they like or dislike? What made them happy?
Because the person we are caring for is still that person, albeit older and perhaps living with some challenges. And they still, in spite of all obstacles, know better for themselves and have the right for their choices to be solicited, respected and honored.
We talk about this all the time, organizationally. We emphasize the need for “deep knowing” of each of the elders entrusted to our care. We reinforce that we must work to understand, and treat, each individual as what they are—unique and entitled to be recognized in their uniqueness. It is easy, far too easy, to fall back into the sense that “we know better.” But that is not the right answer nor is it the right way for our elders to live their lives. Who knows better? Each individual does and each is entitled to live their lives in that way.