Dear Old Lady

Little Old Lady

My mom is in her mid-70s and has recently developed two major health problems. She has significant hearing loss which is not corrected by a hearing aid. She has arthritis in her hip and is on a waiting list for a hip replacement.

My mom has always been a smart and competent person, known for her volunteer work and her love of reading. She spent many years serving the local school library and the local nursery school. She is still part of a crew that organizes and cooks community meals at her church – serving up to 600 people. I see her as a librarian, an early childhood educator and a caterer – as well as being my mom.

But now, everyone who interacts with my mother treats her like a befuddled old woman. As soon as they see that she is bent over and doesn’t respond immediately to greetings, they raise their voices and speak to her as if she’s an infant. They use simple words and endearments. They limit their conversations to the weather and how she is feeling and her comfort. They take over, do things for her without her input, and talk as if she’s not there.

“Here, let me find you a chair – oh, there’s one over there – let me get you settled – easy does it – that’s better now, isn’t it?”

“What a beautiful day – isn’t it great to get out? – how nice for you to be able to enjoy the day!”

“What does she want? Would she like another cup of tea? Jell-O or rice pudding?”

When someone is old and looks alert and physically strong, they are respected for their health, wisdom (whether or not they have any) and long life. Otherwise, they are pitied and coddled.

What brought about this state of affairs? Here are some of my musings:

Lots of folks in my generation were taught to defer to “old people,” to show them respect by greeting them and asking about their health, and to ensure they are comfortable. Likewise, some cultures value the current and past contributions of the elderly and hold them in high esteem. There is nothing wrong with attention and kindness!

Nevertheless, when strangers talk to seniors, especially those with noticeable disabilities, many assumptions are made:

  • She’s probably alone all the time and doesn’t get out much and she needs some cheering up
  • She’s probably forgetful and confused so I’ll speak slowly and in short sentences (“elderspeak”)
  • She is retired and doesn’t do anything therefore it’s impossible to talk about anything but the weather – she couldn’t be expected to know about the playoffs or the election
  • I can see that she needs help (to sit down, to go up the stairs) so I’ll just take care of it before she asks
  • If I can guess what she wants, maybe she won’t be grouchy with me
  • She wants the same things that other old people want: bland food and a place to rest

It comes down to stereotyping older adults, assuming they’re all infirm and lonely, that they have “no life,” and that they all have the same tastes. Sometimes we treat all older adults the same because it saves time – compared to finding out their actual needs.

Maybe the seniors we know, such as our parents or grandparents, are indeed grouchy and demanding, so when we meet a new senior, we make a pre-emptive strike by being super-nice and trying to figure out what they want before they ask.

Maybe our experience with seniors is from an environment in which they don’t always shine, for example, we work in a restaurant and we find that seniors are the most likely to complain about prices, ask for substitutions, send food back or fail to tip.

Or if we work in health care, we may see seniors only when they are stressed, in need of care or at the end of life, rather than when they are more themselves.

Maybe we think all seniors are dear and harmless like our grandparents might have been when we visited, and we don’t see them as individual adults with their own attributes.

I feel lucky that I know a number of adults over 80. (Given that I am over 50, the Old Age cutoff for me is now 80!) It is tempting to judge their success by their health, independence and ability to live alone and provide for their own needs. Those qualities are all over the map. “My” old people are mostly smart and feisty people, who may well seem irritable to strangers, because they make their needs known and don’t like being patronized. However, the seniors I know are grateful for small kindnesses: calls and visits and the feeling of not being forgotten. They like the gift of time and attention. They like discussing current events and being asked their opinions.

Here I am talking about “them” as if “they” were another species, when nothing could be further from the truth.

For kids, old age really is alien. So many kids don’t live near grandparents or don’t live in extended families. The circuit of daycare-school-sports-camps may mean that kids are in same-age groups all the time, and that their carers and coaches are young too. Even parents are unlikely to work with anyone over 55. Maybe the only seniors that families see are Wal-Mart greeters or customers at the doughnut shop! Young kids can be fearful of anything they think is broken, old, tired or in decline. Adults in mid-life can be too rushed with responsibilities to make a “slow” visit to a “needy” elder.

What do we owe them?

I think that as adults, we owe to seniors what we owe to other adults: a sense that each person is unique and valuable, that each person has their own interests and tastes, that each person is on their own path when it comes to physical ability and mental clarity, and that each person should be judged on more than their parenting/grandparenting status, their former career, their housing or their finances. We owe our older loved ones grown-up conversation and the comforts we would give a friend.

Do we owe them respect just for being old?

I would say: families have different ideas about whether they care for elders personally, but everyone is owed dignity, regardless of age. We can act with compassion – and  maintain appropriate boundaries – even if there comes a day when the elder cannot. To me that is what being human is all about.

I am not a super-feisty person. Maybe I will be a dear old lady too. I hope someone will read me bits from The Globe and Mail or tune into CBC and we can chat about what’s going on in the world.

Do you spend time with old people? Do your kids?


  1. Ginger R

    Oh dear! Are you clairvoyant? I’m in the midst of this very same thinking process. My parents are both living. I’m so grateful to have them both here. They had 8 children together. They’ve been divorced for years – but are friendly toward each other. Dad flirts with Mom. She plays hard to get. Dad is 90. He lives in a nursing home. Mom is 89 lives with my husband and me – for 9 years now. My parents owned and operated their own businesses. Dad ran his own business until about 3 years ago. i visited with him yesterday. As I was leaving I passed an art room where a few residents were painting. A colorful painting caught my eye. A lady was painting these beautiful orange flowers on a blue background. I stopped and chatted with her. I caught myself beginning to praise her like one might talk to a child “what a beautiful painting – you’re doing a good job!” A little voice in my head said “Check yourself. You don’t know this woman. She may be an artist. Then won’t you feel foolish?” By the way – I would never talk to my parents this way. I know them. My mother can roll her eyes with the best of them. I visited with her long enough to discover: She is Catherine. She’s been here in this home for two weeks. Her son is an airline pilot who travels a great deal and recently lost his wife to an illness. He worries about her and wants her safe. She doesn’t want him to worry about her. The last home she was in – she left one day to walk home. She knew the way. But the home admin called her son in Argentina. Catherine taught art in a high school and at one of our local universities. (Whew! I would surely come off the fool with my knee-jerk assumptions.) I told her “no wonder your painting is so striking to me – you know what you’re doing, I’m still learning,” I showed her pics of a few of my own paintings. But – admitted these were only painted on little index cards. She encouraged me to keep painting and get some canvases to practice on. A ronderful visit. I’ll be sure to look in on her. And… Maybe introduce her to Dad. He likes girls.

    • Ginger R.

      My that was long… Forgot to say…
      The grandkids (our kids) and great grandkids spend time with many older folks. In fact they found this new facility and moved Dad there. My 2 grand nephews were there helping their mothers. Twin RNs!) Dad (Papa) asked the boys (13 & 15) are there any woman here? You know I like girls. They both chimed in – we like girls too Papa – we’ll scope some out for you. My parents are both quite witty. They each have a great sense of humor. Last week Mom told a few family visitors as they were hugging her goodbye “ya’ll come back when you have less time and more money – you hear?” LOL!

      • I feel lucky that I grew up around grandparents, great-grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, some of whom had quite challenging behaviour in their later years. I feel like I know some of the spectrum of what to expect, especially whatever traits run in families 🙂

    • Hi Ginger, I often think what it would be like to live with one of our parents! Is your house accessible or did you have to modify it? I would be worried that a parent left unsupervised might do things beyond their capabilities, whether having a bath alone, using tools in the workshop, taking the car out, or whatever! Have you had any instances like that with your mom? Thanks for telling about your conversation with Catherine. That is a good example for all of us!

      • Ginger R.

        Our home is not accessible. The house is much like a beach house. It’s built on stilts. You have to go up stairs to get to the front door. Then you enter a big living area – and have to go up a few more steps to reach another living area, the kitchen bedrooms and bathrooms. Once you make it up all the stairs – everything is all easy to traverse. Mom has the master bedroom. We weren’t using it. It’s a bedroom, bathroom with a shower, a small sitting room that Mom uses as her sewing room. Then off her sewing room is her private deck. It’s a 14×14 covered porch on stilts. She has a glider, bistro table with 2 hi back swivel rocking chairs. And lots of plants and gardening decor. She calls it her garden in the sky. No stairs. We did build an emergency fire escape ladder in a corner of the porch. A bench sits on top of it. We keep talking about putting in an elevator. Or chair lift. But I keep putting it off. I think as long as she can do the stairs – it’s good for her.
        We just installed a hand rail in her bathroom. And sometimes she takes a bath in our bathroom. I call it a spa bath. I’ll add Epsom Salt and lavender oil to her bath. Make a Neck roll pillow with a towel. Dim the lights. And I offer to scrub her back – which she loves – and it gives me an opportunity to look her body over. (Are there signs of a fall I don’t know about? Is her skin dry and flaky?) I scrub her back and feet and legs and wash her hair. Sometimes I use a light sugar oil scrub on her feet and legs. I give her sbout 10 minutes to soak and then she’s ready to get out. We have grab rails in the bathtub. The type with suction cups and one that clamps to the side of the tub. I don’t trust them completely – but they are handy and I help. I offer to lotion her down – which she also loves. She gets a great lotion massage.
        My mother is easy. She’s witty. She’s fun. She’s respectful of our privacy and we are of her’s. I ask first. I don’t assume she’ll be okay with whatever I want to do. She is accepting of her dementia for the most part. She says “You know me. I wake up in a new world every day.” She has good days and bad days. Mostly good. When she’s confused and thinks her sisters are still living – we go along with her. There’s no need to correct her on most things – chances are good – she won’t remember it later. She’s 89. Still upright. Stays busy. And she’s happy. We aim for good quality of life.
        She’s rarely left alone. My husband and I are both retired. She has no desire to drive. She doesn’t cook either. She is a blessing. She’s had enriched our lives more than we ever thought possible. She’s taught me patience and about aging gracefully. I swear if you looked up the word “grace” in the dictionary – you’ll find Mama’s picture. She has almost constant pain from arthritis in her lower back and scoliosis in her spine. But she rarely complains unless the pain is great. But then she says she can’t shake this back pain. (My cue to give her more pain meds.) I keep a heat wrap on her back off and on throughout the day. And she rests throughout the day. Some mornings she bounces out of her room with 2 coffee cups in her hands. Spies me on the sofa and says “Well! Is it live or is it Memorex?!? I thought you were going to sleep all day.” LOL! I know this will be one of her good days.

      • Oh, Ginger, it sounds like you have a wonderful life together!

  2. Sarah Nosworthy

    I actually distinctly recall my grandmother, who is 84 I think, moving from feisty, educated woman to the self absorbed, non listening old lady. I decided a few years ago I’d ring her weekly, but I quickly found it wasn’t a conversation. She would tell me things. She would ask questions, however she didn’t ever listen to the answers!?

    She’s very much more liberal now, though! She continues to tell me to “go to bed with” the BF. This same woman made my mother wear cream as she wasn’t pure for her wedding! Yep, her views have progressed to the stage where she just wants a great grandkids (she has one, which is pretty odd out of 17 grandkids. Only one is married, ones been married and whilst not married now has a child). I’m 31, and at least five of my cousins are older, so, in some cultures (not ours) we’d all have kids and have had them for some time!

    My grandfather is a similar age, and still seems to have the ability to listen. He drinks a beer before lunch. The hospital are aghast when he goes in for tests and they find this out. He feels like, why the heck not? Death is coming, may enjoy life til then! Love his devil may care attitude, I really do!

    • Oh yes, I know that happens – it depends on the person, but (as I implied in the post), older is not always wiser. A certain older person in my life who is not my mom, keeps getting crankier with age and regularly has “run-ins” with staff at all sorts of shops and services. Not pleasant! I have had “conversations” like yours with your grandmother. I wonder what is going on there: does the person not hear well? Do they lose the thread of the conversation? Do they just want to talk about themselves? I wonder! Both my grandmother and mother have become more liberal with age, too. I think a lot of it is exposure to the media and its changing norms, and also hearing about what everyone else’s children and grandchildren are up to. I remember back in the 80s(!), my mom struggled with how to tell her very religious mother that my sister was living with her boyfriend. My grandmother said, “Eh, they’re all doing it these days!” Now that she has children who are divorced, my mom says she doesn’t see why anyone would marry unless they had children. How times change!

  3. Ginger R.

    I can say my mother was not a super-fiesty woman either – but she has become one and… Getting fiestier every day. I call it the “age of entitlement”. She’s not rude but she does speak up more. I’ve seen her lay down the law to nurses – after being poked and bruised when they couldn’t find a good vein. “You get one stick and one stuck only. If you can’t do this go find someone who can.” She really was terribly bruised. And she charged a doctor a “wait fee” for making her wait too long. He negotiated. She’ll eat chocolate all she wants. And don’t you dare call her an “old lady”. But… Maybe it’s not a sense of entitlement – maybe she’s found her voice.

    • Isn’t that a fine line, Ginger? I wonder how I will navigate that, myself! I do hear from people in their 70s and 80s that they feel like it’s time to dispense with some of the niceties and be more direct. But of course they still want the niceties directed towards them 🙂

  4. Rusty

    Do you think a few stereotypical oldies make people think they are all like that? My in laws used to have interests and hobbies but now their lives revolve around their illnesses and infirmities. So all they want from other people is exactly what you describe – attention to their comfort and wellbeing. My mother on the other hand is still physically active, involved in her community and loves reading, word games and crosswords. Unfortunately she is also completely deaf and suffers from other people’s assumptions about her (lack of ) mental powers. As her deafness runs strongly in our family I dread its onset. I’ve been thinking recently maybe I should have some advance strategies for coping with deafness in my old age. I remember my mother used to carry the Times, open at the crossword, when she visited any hospital consultants. She’d put it on the desk in front of her, she said they always spoke to her as an intelligent person when she did that! Maybe your mother could carry a book around with a very highbrow title. We all make subconscious judgements by appearances, it is only human, so perhaps we can tweak the appearance from doddery old person to mature and intelligent person who happens to be old!

    • Ah, that is my goal for myself, to become a mature and intelligent person who happens to be old! Fortunately, I know some, so I know it can be done. I do think that people generalize after knowing only a couple of older people. I wonder if I will be deaf, too. If you come up with any strategies, let me know! My hearing is average right now (not exceptional). PS – Do you have a blog, Rusty?

      • Rusty

        Hi, no I don’t have a blog at the moment, although I kept a craft blog for a couple of years when I had lots of time and wasn’t working. I’ve been thinking about starting up again though, but deciding what to write about. .. Watch this space. X Rusty

      • Thanks, Rusty, let us know if you get back in the blogging game 🙂

  5. Margie in Toronto

    I’ve had little personal experience with the dementia factor except for my paternal grandmother – she had alzheimers but still lived “in the old country” so I only saw her the once after this manifested. It fell to my great aunts to deal with her day to day care, although I must say that her neighbours, and the local shopkeepers who had known her for years were all wonderful. My dad had physical limitations due to Parkinson’s and my heart always ached for him and the loss of dignity, even though he had wonderful caretakers. I do remember one instance when a doctor was explaining about the risks of upcoming emergency surgery and that he spoke to my stepmom and me and completely ignored my dad, who was conscious and competent – my stepmom pointed this out to the (very young) doctor and suggested that he speak to him since it would be his decision! To his credit the doctor did apologize and never made that mistake again!
    I’ve just had two friends and their 91 year old mom here for Sunday lunch – I’ve known them since we were kids. “Mom”, while physically well, does have dementia but the family has been wonderful in how they cope. She still knows all of them – and she knows me – and she loves to get out and about. But – she is only good for about 3hours and then she starts to fret a bit and wants to go home. We are all aware of this so someone was on standby to drive them home as soon as the call came and I had lunch ready to serve as soon as they arrived. She lives mostly in the past now – but it’s a happy place so we all just go along with it.
    On the other hand I have a 73 year old friend who is now studying his 14th language and who enjoys operas and talks and reads constantly – but his physical health is not good and deafness is a problem – and he finds it very frustrating because of how it cuts him off from the things he loves.
    My almost 80 year old friend is who we all want to be when we grow up – she walks a mile on the treadmill every day, dresses to the nines and is a terrible flirt! She’s off to Mexico in a week for a wedding and will be the belle of the ball! We all talk about how we have to make an appointment with her in order to see her because she is always so busy.
    I think a lot of it may be that we are afraid of growing old – that old people seldom have a voice in the movies or on TV shows – we do everything possible to stay young – it’s as though if we hang around with old people we’ll turn into one because it’s contagious and so we hide them away or do our best to ignore their existence. I think we miss out on a lot because – if we’re lucky – we’ll all be old one day.

    • To be completely cliche, getting old is better than the alternative. Of course we all hope to have many decades of healthy maturity rather than infirmity. I do worry about the lack of dignity, for my mom and for my future self. You are right that there is such a huge range of how “old age” can play out: some of it based on health and some on lifestyle factors. I bet not many people make a plan of how they want to age (other than maybe how they want to retire): maybe at heart, we expect to stay young and healthy, we think our habits will never catch up with us, and if they do, we expect someone to take care of us!

  6. Very thought provoking post. I think we owe those who came before us, as we both love them and know they loved us. My Mom has Alzeimer’s. She is remembering less, but she lights up when I visit even though, sometimes, she thinks I am Dad or another relative. Of course, I repeat stories, but she loves talking, so I try to have as much new material as possible. It is very hard on my siblings. my wife and me.

    • That would be hard going, Keith. Great emotional demands on visitors and so much caregiving needed. It is great that she loves the feeling of being in communication. Hope you are taking care of yourself.

  7. Fiona

    I feel so uneasy reading ‘even parents are unlikely to work with someone over 55’! Fifty-five is so young!!! It makes me feel entirely unnerved to know that age really is creeping up. In my workplace, I think maybe two thirds of the staff are in the mid-forties to late-fifties bracket, so at least at my work, I feel entirely in the mainstream at that age. Interestingly, we have quite a lot of older teachers (around 60 and above) who don’t want to retire because they really feel they are making a contribution to society and the next generation. They are almost at the peak of their career.

    I do see many people face sudden declines in their 70s though. I think people need to prepare carefully for risks at that age (falls etc.) It is really hard to watch my parents, aunts, uncles etc. facing quite sudden health challenges at that point. And it doesn’t seem too far off – scary! But I know plenty of older people who really work hard on their health and safety and consequently, are living good retirements. My in-laws are both turning 80 this year and just about to head off on another grand European trip (a huge travel experience when going all the way from Australia.)

    I am torn on the ‘respect’ thing. I know some elders who see it as gracefully accepting deference for all the contributions they have made at that age and I wholeheartedly agree with that. But I know some other elders who treat it more as entitlement and an excuse to allow them to continue ‘bad behaviour’ (that may have existed most of their earlier life!)

    • Hi Fiona, My workplace is about 50/50 with workers over and under 40! While I fit comfortably into my own generation, I absolutely love working with younger staff. I think we learn a lot from each other. The management of the library has been mostly people my age but we are “old guard” now and it’s starting to trend younger. It keeps me on my toes! I agree with you on the respect thing. I try to take the high road and show respect. But if a non-relative is unpleasant to be around, I am not likely to take the time to get to know them better. I try to think about whether they are accountable for their behaviour, or whether they have lost that ability.

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