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?