Among the many blessings I count is having my mother-in-law in my life. She’s just turned 94-years-young and she inspires me every day. Claire is the mother of five sons, grandmother of 10 and great-grandmother (she prefers GG) to six more. Her family is close to her and to each other and there is no question of the love and concern that she has for them every day.
She has not had the easiest of roads. Her first husband, the father of her children, died young and unexpectedly. She married again, some years later, and had another 15 years with a lovely man before he, too, passed away. And, beyond that, she has lived through and survived the death of two of her sons, the youngest and then the oldest.
Through it all, she has found strength in her faith and comfort in reaching out to help others. Never one to wallow in her own sorrows, she wants to be, and has been, of service to others. Whether it was organizing programs for her AARP group, befriending new people in her local community or serving as a true friend to one and all, she has consistently reached beyond herself to make a difference.
In recent weeks, her helper role has turned more to one of needing help. She fell, getting out of bed, and hit her head. Thankfully that turned out to be just a minor injury and we were all relieved. But days later she began to complain about back pain, at a level of 9.4 on a 10 point scale. Moving has become painful and the spasms she’s suffering are sharp and frequent. Turns out she has a compression fracture in her back, which we hoped could heal with pain medication and time.
To our dismay, however, her pain has not just been unrelieved, it has increased to the point where it’s debilitating and she chose being in a wheelchair over walking. That was a red flag that prompted us to try and move her upcoming orthopedic appointment up earlier and, with the help of her primary care doctor, we were able to do just that.
On Friday afternoon, I spent a couple of hours with her in the specialist’s office. The office was busy but the staff helpful and kept the process moving. After some wait, we were seen by a member of the medical staff. This individual entered the exam room and, without introducing herself, began to ask me questions about Claire’s pain. Was it down her leg? Were different positions more painful? What was likely to trigger the pain?
I looked at her, put my hand up like a stop sign and said, “Why don’t you ask her?” There was a millisecond of silence as she regrouped but then did direct her questions to the patient, not the person who was accompanying her. It was a moment, and an interaction, I’ve thought about more than once in the intervening days. It’s a moment that disturbed me, reaffirmed what I already know, and reminded me of the lessons we teach our staff on an ongoing basis.
There are too many people, professionals and lay people alike, who assume that someone who is elderly cannot answer a question for themselves. They assume, perhaps, that they all have some kind of cognitive impairment or maybe they are concerned the answer will “take too long” and compromise their busy day. Regardless of the source of this misperception, it tells us one thing loud and clear, that ageism is alive and well and living in our society.
Regardless of our date of birth, we are all entitled to be treated as individuals, with respect and attention. We deserve the opportunity to express ourselves, to be addressed directly and not through a third party — well-meaning though they may be. None of us would choose to be marginalized or disenfranchised, why would we allow it to happen to our older adults?
How do we begin to fight ageism? By calling it when we see it, in ourselves and in others; by thinking about the way we treat older adults including the way we interact and the language that we use. We are all individuals, regardless of age and ability. We need to remember that and to help others to remember it as well.