Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Elderly Equation

First, the article.

This New York Times piece draws attention to an important issue that doesn’t capture enough national attention. The article describes a sensitivity training program called "Xtreme Aging" which simulates for participants what it feels like to be 85 years old. While this program stresses the physical hardships of getting older, I think that’s only half of the equation. My experiences caregiving for my 84 year old grandmother have shown me that the stigma of old age and the social and mental hardships of being elderly are just as significant. Unfortunately, these often get overlooked. I wrote about this problem in an internship application a few months ago that I’d like to share. It's posted below.

Prompt: Identify a societal issue that seldom attracts the attention of the news media. How would you cover this issue as a journalist?

The quality of life for elderly people who are experiencing the frailty of old age but retain their mental sharpness seldom attracts the attention of the news media. Many times people respond inappropriately to the aged as if their obvious physical handicaps mean that their minds are equally handicapped. Not only is this demeaning, but it can lead to incomplete or incorrect responses from the very people that the elderly need for help.

I believe this issue would be best covered by a television newsmagazine such as Dateline/NBC. This format would provide an opportunity to tell the stories of many older adults through the voice of one or two seniors who experience these difficulties first-hand. If I were assigned to conduct interviews, I would select both people who are currently living in their homes and those who have recently been forced to leave. There would be taped interviews and background information detailing how prevalent this issue is in America. The story’s effectiveness would also be strengthened by providing data, such as how many people are aging in their homes and how many are dependent on community networks for basic needs.

To illustrate the dismissal that many other older adults experience, it would be effective to show taped material from a hidden camera or voice recorder. Some of the locales could include restaurants; although many older adults walk slowly and arduously, in many instances they are seated far from the restaurant's entrance. I have also witnessed restaurant servers treat older guests as mentally incompetent by making eye contact with the younger people and asking them for the elderly guest’s order.

Another locale could be a medical center or doctor’s office, often a source of trouble for the elderly. Because of macular degeneration, many older people cannot read the fine print that is used on forms and medical instructions. Medical staff often disregard this. During a recent hospital stay, I was asked to answer how well my grandmother felt. She was in the room, was perfectly capable of answering for herself, and was much more aware of her physical condition than I. I have seen cases where older adults have had their requests for water ignored for several hours, as if they are not mentally competent enough to know when they are thirsty. I believe that the elderly themselves could provide additional examples.

The outside world often does not make fitting considerations for older adults’ mental and physical conditions, which makes it far more difficult for them to stay in their homes. If the news media helped bring about change by increasing awareness of this issue, many more older adults would be able to function comfortably in society and fewer would be confined to assisted living centers and nursing homes.


As the New York Times article pointed out, the experience of getting older in this country is not an enjoyable one. My grandmother, for example, was one of the first women of her generation to experience the freedoms and opportunities made possible by the Feminist movement. She worked as a bank manager for almost 35 years while also maintaining a home and raising two children. As you can imagine, she is still fiercely independent at 84, she still wants to carry her own groceries, and she even entertains the notion of traveling by herself. Those things don't happen; in fact, she spends most of her days lying in bed listening to CSPAN, MSNBC and the Food Network because Macular Degeneration has made her nearly blind. Yes, she's in a healthy amount of denial, but can you blame her? She took care of herself and other people for almost her entire life, and now she has to depend on other people to do everything for her except go to the bathroom, cook her meals and have a shower. And when she actually goes out, people often treat her like an imbecile. Can you imagine what that must be like?

While Xtreme Aging is doing very valuable work, I think the larger issue here is that most of us don’t really understand what older people are going through both physically and mentally. While most of us have known someone older quite well, there is still a general lack of understanding of the elderly, their needs and what we can do. Older adults need us younger and middle aged people to understand their position so that they can stay self-sufficient and avoid the hardships of nursing homes. There is a clear need for us to put ourselves in their shoes, but until we do, we just won’t get it.

1 comment:

Ric Storms said...

I think where this Xtreme Aging goes astray is that it focuses on the symptoms and not the causes of age based discrimination. The main issue facing the elderly is that they are stereotyped, like any other group. We assume that because someone is a certain age they will have certain characteristics, however this has all the pitfalls of doing it to any other group. I have to disagree that Macular Degeneration causes miscommunication within the medical field. Instead, why don't we look to improve doctor-patient interaction, isn't this the best solution to the problem. It seems that two possibilities exist for the future. As the elderly population increases due to the Baby Boomer generation, we will either re-evaluate our treatment and expectations of the older population, or we will further stereotype them and marginalize them. We should use the resource of the increasing elderly population to expand our knowledge of the human experience, to understand how not only our minds and bodies age, but how social and cultural values are effected by age. It is the obligation of all of us to not to stigmatize the elderly, but instead to learn from them.