Diminished or Dignified

A good friend’s mother died last year at 104. A proud, strong woman with pride and standards, she became less easy to get along with and more set in her ways as she aged. She was fiercely loyal and I loved her. However, there was a fine line that no one should cross if they wanted a relationship with– and/or cooperation from–her. That was the line that diminished dignity.

She remained independent in her own apartment with part-time help, until she was 102 and her unsteadiness led to falls. So it was a choice: caregivers in her apartment or a care facility of some kind. While she chose caregivers, she balked at having them. They, of course, didn’t dare call her honey or sweetie or dear, but then they couldn’t call her “chief or boss” either (POST 1). So they addressed her by her formal name: they called her Mrs. Miller. That suited her just fine.

Her trips to emergency increased with her age and age-related issues. Her son was at-the-ready, leaving instructions at nursing stations and the like saying “She wants to be called Mrs. Miller,” after he informed appropriate people individually. If there was to be cooperation, Mrs Miller needed to be treated with–and know she had–respect.

I think about the many alert, mentally capable elderly people whose lives are untentionally diminished by people who assume if you’re old, you can’t be treated like a normal functioning human being. It’s not ill-spirited. Is it thoughtless or a response to a stereotyped idea of older people? We could say it’s not politically correct. But most likely many would not listen because old people won’t have a loud enough political lobbying voice to be heard on this subject until baby boomers age a bit more.

Yet calling older people well-meaning, but diminishing, names is just one example. I think about Katy’s mother who, in her late-80’s, needed a wheel chair when there was a lot of walking involved. She was a smart and with-it woman, but Katy noticed that if they were going shopping, for example, the sales associate or clerk would address remarks to Katy, even though Katy’s mother had initiated the conversation. This can happen in doctors’ offices, at hospital registration sites, you name it. On the other hand, if we go shopping with our smart, with-it teenager (who’s in a wheel chair for some not-observable reason) and he/she initiates a question, our teenager is answered. Check it out!

If we are sensitive and find ourselves involved in an experience like Katy’s with her mother, Katy’s response, “You know, Mother asked the question,” is a good model. In a nice, but straight-forward way, it redirects the conversation to her mother so that the sales person or whoever is aware of his/her unfounded assumption. (And even if he/she doesn’t “get it” completely, our parent isn’t excluded from the conversation.)

We are so often on fast-forward that these diminishing experiences are easily ignored. But older parents, who usually have less going on in their lives and therefore may attach greater significance to things we hardly notice, say:”It chips away a little at a time.” If your parent is not as strong as Mrs. Miller and empowering is a goal, these kinds of slights may be well worth recognizing.

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