When we write about older adults, do we have ethical constraints? Or can we treat them as we would treat millennials and other younger adults? Does it matter? Should we look for synonyms, like senescent? Or should we listen to Pablo Picasso and remember that it takes a long time to become young?

The American Society On Aging has good ethical advice for us. “There are a variety of areas in which ethical issues can emerge, including complex family dynamics, end-of-life wishes, preserving dignity and respect, promoting independence, and keeping the individual safe. There are various factors that can make older adults vulnerable to abuse, neglect, and ill intent.”[1]

Many people, especially writers, understand that there is a child in every adult. Pablo Neruda had a collection of small and large toys he couldn’t live without in his house. He said, “The child who doesn’t play is not a child, but the man who doesn’t play has lost forever the child who also lived in him and will certainly miss him. He built his house like a toy house and played in it from morning till night.”[2]

If you’re in the long-term care world and writing about your professional and ethical parameters, you’d do well to pay attention to the essentials of long-term care. (1) BENEFICENCE; Do right (“good”) by the patient. (2) NON-MALEFICENCE; avoid harm. (3) Futility of treatment. It should be consistent with the patient’s (clinically realistic) goals. (4) CONFIDENTIALITY;  Complete and absolute confidentiality is the underlying tenet. (5) AUTONOMY AND INFORMED CONSENT; A patient has the inherent right of self-determination. (6) PHYSICIAN–PATIENT RELATIONSHIP; A therapeutic alliance should exist between physician and patient—there should be fidelity, trust, confidentiality, and protection from intended harm. (7) TRUTH TELLING; Physicians have a duty to tell the truth and be honest versus incomplete statements of encouragement. (8) JUSTICE; Distribute resources and treatment in an equitable manner. Be fair and lawful. Use objective decision-making processes, not emotional or subjective ones. (9) NON-ABANDONMENT; Physicians have a duty to uphold the principle of fidelity—not to abandon the patient after establishing a therapeutic relationship. (10) LIMITED RESOURCES; Realize that there are limited health care resources.”[3]

The National Council On Aging also has something to say to us about the ethicality of what we write. “NCOA believes every American deserves to age well—regardless of gender, color, sexuality, income, or ZIP code. Because aging well for all is a matter of equity, we are committed to maintaining the highest ethical standards in everything that we do. Without that commitment, our integrity, our reputation for advocating for older adults, our respect, and the very quality of the resources and best practices would fall into doubt.”[4]

I’m a grown-up writer and acutely aware of my age. Even so, I take advantage of youngsters who always seem ready to explain things to me. When I write about them, I should pay attention to basic ethical imperatives—truth, transparency, accountability, and good-naturedly. I think Paul Theroux described me and every other writer I know accurately. “We are at once preoccupied, knowledgeable, worldly, remote, detached, vain, skeptical, eccentric, self-sufficient, indestructible, egomaniacal, and hospitable to praise.”[5] That’s ethical, right?   

[1] https://www.asaging.org/web-seminars/ethical-considerations-working-older-adults

[2] “Breathing On Your Own—Quotations For Independent Thinkers” Compiled by Richard Kehl. © 2001 by Blue Light Studio. Darling & Company, Seattle Washington at page 25.

[3] https://www.hmpgloballearningnetwork.com/site/altc/content/10-ethical-principles-geriatrics-and-long-term-care

[4] https://www.ncoa.org/page/accountability

[5] “Breathing On Your Own—Quotations For Independent Thinkers” Compiled by Richard Kehl. © 2001 by Blue Light Studio. Darling & Company, Seattle Washington. At page 216.

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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