Monday, January 10, 2011

The Invisible Elderly

Over the holidays I had the sad misfortune.. wait let me correct that, my father had the sad misfortune of coming down with the Flu and needed to be hospitalized – on New Year’s Eve no less. When I arrived at the hospital, it seemed there were a disproportionate number of elderly suffering from dementia there – apparently also with a Flu bug.

My father suffers from Vascular Dementia. He has been on a steady decline for well over ten years now. I feel compelled to say I’m lucky because my father is compliant, easy to care for, not moody or aggressive, does not wander, yet, and in general has been more or less stable. He lives in a residence for like-afflicted folk who can get themselves to the washroom and the dining room.

Back at the hospital, the nurse tending to my father was trying to put in an IV for hydration, as he had ripped out the one before. At the same time, an elderly lady stationed next to my father was growing ever more agitated. Her dementia seemed farther along than my dad’s. She had a beard – this indicating to me that a certain level of care might be missing. There was no one there with her. She was becoming agitated because there were hospital products on her table – gauze, ointment, and so on.  The things on her table didn’t belong there – rightly so. However, no one was responding to her. No one was indicating that she was there, speaking, had a problem .. nothing. I wonder how it might have taken away from my father, had the nurse turned and said I hear you, I’ll be with you in a moment, or barring that .. how about making eye contact, smiling, nodding?

There is still a bias out in the world toward the elderly. Working for a year in long-term health care – with a population mostly stricken by Alzheimer’s disease, sensitized me to their plight. People don’t want to see the elderly, don’t want to acknowledge the decline, they see in their loved ones their own mortality. Family members of those with Alzheimer’s often admonish their loved ones for forgetting – but the stricken are not in control of that.

There is a wonderful book out – Learning to Speak Alzheimer’s, which explains to readers how to be where the loved one is. While it acknowledges the importance of the many losses, the author’s focus is on what remains of the person, what the person can still do, and on being respectful of those strengths. The author reminds us that while a person may forget how to lift a leg to get into a tub; affection, love and care still register deep within a soul and should not be forgotten.

How lovely would it be for the professionals among us to learn this as well? Everyone deserves respect. If it were to have been a healthy young person in that bed beside my father, expressing concern about something an orderly had left behind – do you imagine the nurse/doctor would have responded? I’m inclined to think yes.

Let’s stop making the elderly invisible.


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