Over the past two years, I spent a large percentage of time working with the elderly and infirmed; most had a diagnosis of some form of dementia. This work proved to be both rewarding and disheartening and, as with most things I have taken on in my life, I had no idea what I was getting into when I started. Every day, as I sought resources which would better enable aging clients to maneuver within their lives, I was reminded that toys, money, accolades and trophies become somewhat meaningless towards the end of life. It’s ironic really, because we spend so much time amassing, clutching and grabbing for things as we go along, things which, after reaching old age, inevitably wind up in the back of a closet, or in a box in the attic or basement. In far too many cases, I bore witness, to someone’s treasures becoming curbside pickup when a family cleaned out their parents’ home to either move them into an elder care facility or bury them after they passed away.
So often, I stood looking at framed certificates touting master’s degrees or Doctorates earned by one of the older men or women I was privileged enough to assist. These degrees enabled some of these same folks to amass plenty of disposable cash. But I’d bet my own last dollar that each one of the folks who earned these accolades or saved this money, would give up claim to all of it for better vision or hearing, improved cognitive health or greater mobility.
It was very hard to not get too attached to the elderly men and women I worked with; but after all, how could I not? In truth, I believe I always will attach no matter how hard I try not to. This is largely because so few of the folks I assisted had viable peer support. Some had an aide or a physical therapist, but rarely did they have someone from which to receive the benefit of regular hugs. Former clients may have lived in lovely facilities, buildings with marble foyers and grand stairways, but they still ate their meals virtually alone, even when at a table full of others. Particularly, at the memory care facilities, so many in the dining room struggled to concentrate on eating, leaving neither energy nor mental capacity for engaging and socializing with table mates. For so many older individuals, meal time or hobby time do not hold the same joy as they did in the past. Yes, there are Bingo games and movie nights. There are crafts and even shopping trips, but with walkers, wheelchairs, hearing aids and other necessary devices, the payoff for attending events or field trips is trumped by the stress of the logistics involved in participating. Sadly, it seems that for too many elders in our society, companionship and sociability come with a price.
Looking at life from a clinical perspective, it seems that we, those who still have our vision, have lost sight. The enormous amounts of energy often spent arguing about the sad state of the nation on social media could be channeled and shifted into getting involved on a neighborhood level; involved with someone watching the world from a very lonely vantage point. Perhaps they are living alone in assisted living, or struggling with dementia in a locked ward. These people are right down the street and up the road from where you live.
I wonder what would happen if we channeled the rage that drives posts, tweets and chats and shifted it into compassion for the forgotten citizens, the ones who are not capable of posting angry rants, and are instead living with inner torment due to deterioration of their bodies, minds and spirits. These non-tweeting people have so much to offer in life experience, but they are too often tucked away and living lonely, dismissed and undervalued. I think we, as a society, are missing something very important by allowing this loneliness. I wish we could look around more and really see, instead of always reacting before we stop to. If we did this, I believe we would recognize the vast resource currently tucked away with the forgotten generation.
Once we recognized it, we might then realize how much we can learn from our seniors! How I wish more and more of us would take a chance, visit some of these elders and start asking them to share a few stories. Ask them for advice. They have so much to tell us and so many stories; stories of resilience and courage, of heartache and joy, of wars and epidemics, of hatred and love. We have so much we could be learning from our eldest generation if we only stopped to see them and to ask.