More Reflections on Dignity and Respect

[I came across the following post on a blog about the meaning of words.  It provides a relevant perspective on the meanings of dignity and respect in care-giving relationships with the elderly.]

Dignity is honorableness, a quality of the person being elevated.  Respect is a viewpoint, a quality of the person doing the elevating.

It is helpful to look at the etymology of these words, because their meanings reflect their history. Dignity it comes from the Latin noun dignus, “worth”, and is related to other valuing words such as dignitarydaintydeigndisdain, and indignation.³ Respect comes from the Latin verb respicere, literally “look back at”, and is related to other viewing words such as spectatorspectacles, and inspect.

I agree that there is considerable overlap between the two terms, dignity and respect, yet they do often be seem to be used together. One context that is fairly common and topical in the UK at the moment is in the treatment of patients – and particularly elderly patients – in hospital.

In that particular context, I tend to think of dignity as referring to the manner in which they are ‘physically’ treated or handled, e.g. handling them in a private cubicle with curtains properly drawn, treating their physical body with respect and privacy as far as possible even when having to help them dress/undress or having to help with private and/or intimate functions.

On the other side, I think of respect as ‘dignity’ for their ‘inner person’, for their wishes and desires: listening to what they want and to their preferences, and responding to them, even if you cannot meet their wishes or they are inappropriate for medical reasons – not just doing what you think is necessary and ignoring what they are saying. Give them at least a moment of time, rather than ignore them completely.

–Trevor D



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