Actor Christopher Lee recently died at the ripe old age of 97 leaving one to ponder what it is like to be an elderly person in America today? A myriad of thoughts pour out. As longevity increased due to access to healthcare, better nutrition, and improved hygiene, dilemmas for the elderly and their families have arisen on multiple fronts - ethical, moral, and social. Adult children are pulled between meeting their responsibilities to their own spouses, children, and employer as they struggle to meet the needs of their aging parents whose retirement finances are often woefully inadequate to cover their long-term care and medical needs. For many, retirement income consists solely of social security income leaving many of today’s elderly dependent on government assistance to meet their basic necessities. Not all seniors found themselves in this predicament due to lack of planning. Some lost pensions when companies failed. Others lost their retirement savings due to fraudulent scammers playing on their vulnerability. As if these stressed were not enough, elderly people are often targets of ridicule, aggressive behaviors, unscrupulous caregivers and sales persons.
With so many stresses and difficulties to manage, the elderly experience personal loss daily as they transition from years of productivity to their golden years (Colarusso & Nemiroff, 1981) which increasingly may not feel quite so golden. Many of their losses often go unrecognized by busy family members and, among others, can include:
· Loss of career
· Lost Income
· Loss of spouse or significant other
· Loss of mobility
· Lost independence
· Loss of good health
· Visual and/or hearing loss
· Memory loss
· Loss of friends through death, relocation; or debilitating illness
· Loss of dignity
Some seniors are resilient and are able to manage their financial affairs and their activities of daily life well. Others, however, slip into depression. They may feel anxious and fearful of falling, hurting themselves, running out of money, losing their home, or being forgotten. Sometimes people become frustrated when delayed by an elderly person’s mobility problems, or being subject to stories being retold for the umpteenth time, or an elderly person’s difficulty adapting to their rapidly changing world. Not only has the elderly person had to adapt to rapid shifts in technology, they are affected by changing social values and behaviors they were taught are inappropriate and unacceptable. The desire of many seniors is simply not to be an imposition and not to be forgotten by family and friends.
A few recent examples of elderly people being taken advantage of and being treated rudely are:
An elderly couple was traveling the speed limit on a public road when a young male driver began tailgating the couple’s car. A few minutes later when the elderly driver did not succumb to the aggressive male driver’s efforts to make him go faster, the young male gunned his engine, abruptly changed lanes and rapidly accelerated and then cutoff the elderly couple.
An elderly woman not wanting to impose on her children to remove an antique desk from her room at an Assisted Living Facility sold it to a staff member for $100. Neither the ALF nor the staff member notified the family of the need or of the intended transaction. The resident did not realize her antique desk was far more valuable than the $100 received from the sale.
A family arranges for an ALF to care of their mother and after she moves in, the family never returns to visit her even though they live nearby.
The terminally ill elderly spouse planning to commit suicide because of excruciating pain and dwindling finances. He fears leaving his spouse penniless to live out the rest of her life.
Gracefully growing old is losing its golden luster as the problems associated with longevity leach away its promise of comfort and security.
Theft and loss of personal possessions are common occurrences in facilities that care for the elderly. Spend a few weeks helping an elderly family member and observe the plight of many elderly people who have been admitted to the facility and then forgotten. It is understandable how family members burn out and then visit stop visiting their loved one. As dementia begins to settle in, behavior may appear slightly odd, forgetfulness increases, temper tantrums and lying or embellishing facts occurs more frequently. It is disturbing to an adult child to witness a parent alternate between adult behavior and child behavior. Angry feelings erupt when the adult child’s patience wears thin and the elder parent feels disrespected. Sometimes violence erupts and tragedy follows. Respite care costs money and most families who need it most can’t afford it. Yet those breaks from caregiving are crucial preventive measures. It is a real double bind.
The problems are complex and have accumulated as society has moved from an agrarian economy to industrialization to cyber culture often displacing those who are vulnerable whether that vulnerability be age, lack of skills, economic disparity, physical disability, or mental deficiency. It would be easy to criticize nursing homes and assisted living facilities. In times past, families came together to provide care. Aging parents remained in the home rather than an institution or facility. It would be easy to criticize family members who refuse to bring elderly parents into their homes placing them in nursing homes instead. There are families who believe nursing homes and out of home care is not a consideration (Berger, 2001). However, in fairness, there are facilities and institutions who serve the elderly with compassion, dignity, and respect. Difficult as it may be to acknowledge, even marginal facilities provide better care than some elderly people would receive were they homeless or left to fend for themselves. While not an excuse for poor care, staff members working in ALFs and SNFs are usually underpaid, overworked, and sometimes undertrained. None of these factors excuses elder abuse and neglect but it certainly sheds light on some of the contributory dynamics. Even families trying to care for elderly parents at home struggle to find qualified in-home services or respite care.
Regardless of the excuses used to salve a guilty conscious, elderly people are people too. They deserve to be treated with empathy, dignity, and respect. They possess a wisdom and dignity nurtured from a time when people relied on trust and personal integrity. It is actually a wonder they have any patience with the upcoming generation.
Berger, K. S. (2001). The developing person through the life span (5th ed.). Worth Publishers. New York.
Colarusso, C. A. & Nemiroff, R. A. (1981). Adult development: A new dimension in psychodynamic theory and practice. Plenum Press. New York.
Levy, S. The Most Common Issues of Aging. Retrieved June 20, 2015 from http://www.agingcare.com/Articles/common-issues-of-aging-102224.htm
National Council on Aging. Top 10 scams targeting seniors. Retrieved June 20, 2015 from http://www.ncoa.org/enhance-economic-security/economic-security-Initiative/savvy-saving-seniors/top-10-scams-targeting.html