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Being Old in the 21st century
"Reaching" - Miksang photo by Julie Einstein

"Reaching" - Miksang photo by Julie Einstein

One day, as I was interviewing a young woman who wanted a job working with older adults, she told me: “When the consumer needs toileting, I…”  I wondered.  “Oh, is she going to tell me about bed pans or the correct terminology for bodily processes?”  But that wasn’t it.

Caregivers are often taught to label elders by their function or by their disease.  (i.e. there’s a broken hip in bed two)  We are also taught not to use slang for bodily processes.  We can’t say, “The old woman needs to pee.”  The elder is no longer perceived as an old person vegetating in a rocking chair.  Older people are no longer referred to as old, frail, or dying.  They are older adults at the end of life who may have life limiting illness and who are consumers of services.  Some think that the elderly consume too many health services. Some think that too many elderly people slip through the cracks and are not served enough.  

Either way whether you think of an elder as a consumer, a vegetater, or a rocker; the view seems to be dead end attitude. It is the trash heap, where people land who are thought of by their function in society.  Am I a consumer, a boomer, or a bed in a facility?  Am I staying home or aging in place?  Do I contribute services or use them up?

But there is another question to ask: What is it to be a human being—to live and die with appreciation, with tenderness, with inquisitiveness, and the courage it takes to communicate without all those labels?

Continuing with the interview, I tell the young woman being interviewed this:  “The other day I called on a very old woman to see if she needed some help.  “Bring me a car”, she told me.  “I want to go to Talbot’s to buy my last sweater.”         

–   “How would you respond to this elder?”  I ask the young woman.

–   She replied,  “Well, I wonder if someone so old needs a new sweater.”

–   “But what if she wants one?”  I ask,  “Like a last wish before dying? Or what if she is being a drama       queen or trying to solicit pity?” 

–  “Should she want a new sweater when she is nearly 90 years old?”  The young woman persists,  “Would she get her money’s worth?” 

–  “Can’t we start where she is?” I suggest. “Wouldn’t it be healing to take an expedition to a store: the fresh air, talking with sales clerks, the touch of wool and fake fur?  What about the color that wakes you up and lets you enjoy being alive?”

–  “Well, maybe we could call the doctor for some Ativan (anti-anxiety drug).  A shopping neurosis is not so good,” the prospective caregiver suggested..

I relax into the interview. Maybe this young woman and I don’t quite connect. Young and old have different words, yet, how good it is to talk it over. “There is more than one way to skin a cat,” as my own mother often told me. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if communication could be the courage we live with, so we wouldn’t have to label our dear fellow compadres as consumers, even if we still want sweaters or need help with toileting when we are old?

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1 response to “ Being Old in the 21st century ”
  1. Dan Peterson
    Jun 1, 2009
    Reply

    Perhaps a good discussion occasionally involves uncertainty, some self-consciousness about the words we use and curiosity about how these words are heard by others.

    When someone appears to be having trouble, for instance with illness or increased challenges to care for themselves, maybe it is best to start wide open with no offers of particular assistance (e.g. Circles of Care). Not only do our preconceptions and labels dissolve, but a lot comes up as well in those rich gaps. I feel like I am swimming upstream sometimes to let go of everything that comes up, and return to that warm gap where there is a shared sense with others. Maybe we are both haunted by a quality of hopelessness and attracted.to the life-spark of others.

    Thanks very much Ann. I really like how your stories work.


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