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Professional judgements of risk and capacity in situations of self-neglect among older people



Over the past 50 years, self-neglect among older people has been conceptualised in both social policy and the academy as a social problem which is defined in relation to medical illness and requires professional intervention. Few authors, however, have analysed the concept of self-neglect in relation to critical sociological theory. This is problematic because professional judgements, which provide the impetus for intervention, are inherently influenced by the social and cultural context. The purpose of this article is to use critical theory as a framework for interpreting the findings from a qualitative study which explored judgements in relation to older people in situations of self-neglect made by professionals. Two types of data were collected. There were 125 hours of observations at meetings and home assessments conducted by professionals associated with the Community Options Programme in Sydney, Australia, and 18 professionals who worked with self-neglecting older people in the community gave in-depth qualitative interviews. The findings show that professional judgements of self-neglect focus on risk and capacity, and that these perceptions influence when and how interventions occur. The assumptions upon which professional judgements are based are then further analysed in relation to critical theory.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Shannon McDermott, Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Western Campus, Building G2, Sydney, NSW 2042, Australia E-mail:


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Professional judgements of risk and capacity in situations of self-neglect among older people



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