Inadvertently Diminishing Aging Parents

Beware! Diminishing, Demeaning–Undoubtedly Making Older People Feel Like Excess.

Do we cringe when someone diminishes an aging person? Do we even notice? (For me, it’s like someone running their fingernails over one of those old, chalk blackboards of our youth.)

Once sensitized, we realize it’s a common daily occurrence, although possibly unwitting. Let’s look at 3 examples.

1.  Many people assume if you’re old, you can’t be treated like a normal functioning human being. I don’t think it’s mean-spirited, it rather seems like a given that accompanies aging. Is it thoughtless or a response to a stereotyped idea of older people?

While, there’s no strong lobbying voice yet to create the awareness that it’s not politically correct, I’m guessing things will change as Boomers age a bit more.

In the meantime, be aware of the many alert, mentally capable elderly people whose lives are unintentionally diminished by unthinking people–trying to be helpful when unnecessary, talking unnaturally to them assuming they don’t understand or can’t hear (you’ll think of other things) and try to reduce possibilities for your parents.

2. What’s in a name? How often do caregivers and others call older people by diminishing names? Honey, Sweetie, Dear, Darling.  I think of Sidney Potier in The Heat of the Night saying: “They call me Mr. Tibbs,” after being addressed as “boy” by a southerner in the movie. Many older parents hesitate to correct people, especially when they depend on them as caregivers or hospital staff.

I think of a good friend’s mother who, for her entire life, wanted to be addressed as “Mrs. Miller.”  A fine line existed that no one should cross if they wanted a relationship with– and/or cooperation from–her. That fine line included anything that diminished dignity and unearned familiarity fell into that category.

As she aged and grew more fragile, trips to “emergency” increased. With each visit, the first thing her son made clear was to call her “Mrs. Miller.” She required that respect; they needed to comply.

In the same vein, I recall a college rep from California visiting East Cost high schools. She was worried–because she was away and her mother was hospitalized–that someone would call her “Honey” or “Sweetie” and her mother would cave into the diminished feeling and not make the needed effort to recover from a serious health event.

3. Older people in wheel chairs don’t escape being diminished, in fact often they’re treated like they aren’t even there when accompanied by a younger person.

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, with-it woman, married to a judge. Katy noticed that if they were going shopping, for example, the “sales associate” would address remarks to Katy, even though Katy’s mother initiated the conversation. Katy reports this occurred in doctors’ offices, at hospital registration, you name it.

Contrast this with taking a smart, with-it teenager (who’s in a wheel chair for some not-observable reason) shopping. If he/she initiates a question, the teenager is answered…the clerk doesn’t look past the teenage to answer us. Check it out!

When we find ourselves involved in a Katy’s-mother-type experience think about Katy’s response, “You know, Mother asked the question.” It’s a good model.

It nicely redirects the conversation to her mother so the mother maintains self-esteem and the sales person or whoever is aware of the competent elder person he/she should be speaking to. (And even if he/she doesn’t “get it” completely, our parent isn’t demeaned by exclusion from the conversation.)

We are so often on fast-forward that these diminishing experiences can be 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.” Obviously to help parents age well, we don’t want them to feel “chipped away.”

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