Aging and Ageism:
Can You Have One Without the Other?
by Karen Henderson
My father was almost
92 when he died. Looking after him opened my eyes to a world
I don't want to move into the world of the old.
old. None of us should be surprised or angry; it's a fact
of life. But what's also a fact of life is this: we don't
treat older people as people. We treat them as a commodity
to be used, abused and disposed of as we see fit. We somehow
learn to raise our children; we try to give our pets a good
life. Why can't we extend the same efforts to our older people?
I am as guilty
as the next person. On the highways, I become impatient with
older, slower drivers. In lineups at the grocery store, I
want to hurry an older person fumbling with her change so
I can get home.
How did our world
get like this? There are too many reasons to discuss here.
However, I think one of the biggest is that the young and
old have never really learned to communicate with each other.
We, the young,
have not figured out how to respect our older people. Thus
we don't know how to talk to them or learn from them. Too
often we ignore older people or treat them like children,
particularly if they are chronically ill or cognitively impaired.
I remember a wise
friend telling me one day when I was going through a very
tough time with my dad: "Remember what your father has lived
through a depression and economic collapse, two world
wars and the fathering of five children. Your dad is a survivor
and should be honoured as such."
A year ago my
aunt (dad's sister) was telling me stories about life during
the war, things I never knew about my father and his family.
I so wanted to ask my dad about this. But it was too late;
his dementia was so far along that he could not communicate
any more. He did not speak up and I did not ask. What a waste
for him and for me. As Alex Haley wrote, "The death of an
old person is like the burning of a library." I
didn't spend enough time with dad in his library.
On the other hand,
older people have not learned to speak up for themselves.
According to author Joan Cleveland of New York, too often
older people buy into the myth that they are useless. They
allow younger people to tell them what they are or are not
Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders,
Mary Pipher reveals no deep, dark secrets about how our society
treats the old. What she does is show us how the patterns
were formed. She writes: "We make it almost impossible (for
old people) to be dependent yet dignified, respected, and
in control. The old must learn to say, 'I am grateful for
your help and I am still a person worthy of respect."
Have we done anything
for the old we can be proud of? Certainly not in the area
of health care medical ageism is rampant. You would
be shocked at the scant number of hours allotted to the study
of aging in Canadian medical schools. Needless to say, we
don't have enough geriatricians to properly meet the demands
our aging society will soon place on the health-care system.
The May 1999 issue
of Canadian Family Physician reported that even though
the highest rates of depression, dementia and suicide occur
among the elderly, seniors are one of the most under-treated
populations for mental health.
When Helen Henderson
(The Toronto Star, October 1999) asked her readers
if doctors treat older people fairly, she was astounded and
dismayed by the "shocking nature of many experiences readers
described." Lack of time and concern, and attribution of serious
symptoms to merely "old age," were only a few. But physicians
are only part of a system that is cutting back on expendable
items like old people.
I could go on.
Instead I want to focus on two easy but very effective solutions
each of us has the power to implement.
My father used
to keep telling me: "Slow down, you're always in a hurry."
Starting today I ask everyone (from family caregivers to physicians)
to honour our older people by spending more time with those
you know, treat or love uninterrupted, quality time.
The other thing
we can do is listen to what older people have to say. Help
give them the opportunity to be proud of having lived 80 plus
Our older people
don't ask for much. It's precious little for us to give.
Geriatrics and the Limits of Modern Medicine, The New
England Journal of Medicine, April 22, 1999, Vol. 340,
"Too Often, the
Elderly Don't Get Drugs or Care They Need" by Marilyn Chase
Wall Street Journal, Sept. 24, 1999