When you think of prejudices prevalent in today’s American society what comes to mind? In his book, Ageism: Negative and Positive, Dr. Erdman Palmore suggests that the top three forms of bigotry are racism, sexism, and then thirdly, ageism (1999). What is ageism? When did we start using that word? Ageism is a term coined by Dr. Robert Butler in 1968 to describe discrimination against the elderly population (Tapper, 2010). Dr. Butler, in his life, contributed so much to the goal of shifting views on the geriatric populus. It was the works and determination of Dr. Butler that medical schools have a required geriatric round. He initiated the Department of Geriatrics and Adult Development at Mount Sinai Medical Center and wrote many books on aging and longevity including the 1976 Pulitzer-winning Why Survive: Being Old in America. (AP. 2010). There is legislature on ageism that prevents employers from hiring, firing, withholding training or pension, etc., based on age (2008). Employers, despite this, can have employees sign a waiver of this right.
There is a miniscule scraping of the surface of the history of ageism to date. To follow will come my opinions and life experiences coupled with possibilities for remedy and potentially how to prevent a decline in care and respect for who will inevitably be us some day.
I have to admit that upon receiving this assignment I was stricken with guilt and embarrassment. I have always been ageist. I hate it. I like to think of my self as a well rounded, open-minded, widely accepting participant in society. But, alas, I am human and not exempt from opinions and emotions. Growing up both of my parents worked in a nursing home. My mother was the business office manager and my father was the director of social services and admissions for SunBridge a franchise assisted living facility. With an in like that, it was easy for me to slip into my first job at the age of fifteen as a “dietary aid” for the cafeteria at said nursing home. As a dietary aid (lets be real…I was a dishwasher) I started honing my ageist opinions.
I’m sure you can imagine what types of “yuck” I would encounter on the returned trays of the residents. Let me paint a picture for you anyhow. Often times I would get a tray back with teeth on it. Yes, Alfred forgot to put his teeth back in after eating and yes he tried to eat with his dentures in only to succumb to the fact that he couldn’t. So that was pretty foul. The endless accounts of bodily fluid filled tissues and napkins that littered the trays. The cups and mugs returned with solidified beverages from the thicken powder used to thicken the beverage so that those who had a hard time swallowing might not choke on the liquid. I was even lucky enough to get a whole tray of vomit one time. Oh yes, I was ageist at a young age. I did this for two years before becoming a licensed nursing assistant. That did not bode well for my outlook on the demographic. Changing diapers, showering, changing, and answering to the beck and call light of many elderly was fodder for my well developed prejudice. I hated it. I hated old people. They smelled bad, they couldn’t hear me and if they did they couldn’t understand me, I couldn’t understand them. It was like we were having a language barrier. We were from different generations and that may as well be from different planets as far as a 17 year old was concerned.
I quickly escaped the world of elder care only to find my self landed back in an LNA position in 2006. By this time my work ethic and my determination to attain perfection had set in. I still held the ageist opinions from my early youth, but now I was dedicated to the role of caregiver. I worked overnights with the thought that I would see less of “them”, and I did. What I didn’t count on was how many of “them” died at night. I suppose it would be safe to say that is when my thoughts on the elderly started to shift. I developed greater patience and compassion toward these people passing on to the next whatever-they-believed-in.
The first time a resident died on my watch I was rife with mixed emotion. I felt responsible somehow, feelings of horror and literal morbidity. The emotions were endless. I was to count breaths and heart beats every 5 minutes and was asked to talk her through passing on. What?! I was mortified. But some how Bernie and I made it through the night. Twenty breaths a minute, thirteen breaths, five breaths, no breaths. All the while talking to her. “When we met you were such a fire cracker. Remember? You said I looked like a circus freak with all my tattoos… We became good friends, huh? Who would have thought?” I would speak softly to her. “Mommy, Momma, Momomom” was all that she could say. “Yes soon you will be with your Momma, Bernie, soon.” I gave her a sponge bath, combed her hair and tried to help her stay as comfortable as possible. When she was pronounced dead I didn’t know if I should cry or if it was unprofessional or not. I waited till I got a break in the smoking room by myself. After Bernie there were lots that died on the night shift and I looked forward to helping people pass on.
My favorite was a woman named Alice. That woman could not remember my name to save anyone’s life. She was “gone with the wind” we would say (She loved movies). The night she died she looked at me and said: “Melody, you have such a lovely name… … Don’t ever let anyone call you ‘Mel’ again. Don’t let anyone call you by anything but your god-given name because it’s yours, and you are beautiful.” She closed her eyes and didn’t say another word and passed away 4 hours later. I had a classic jaw dropping moment in her room that night and to this day I ask to be called Melody.
These two stories and many others like it opened my heart to elderly people. But you know the saying, “Outta sight, outta mind”. When I stopped working at the nursing home I was so happy to stop. I was tired and burnt out from the over night shift. I went back to my old ways of the demeaning name calling under my breath and the intolerance to every slow driver who was obviously too old to drive.
Today how is my outlook on the aging population? Well, greatly affected by society, because as I always say, “I am human and not exempt from folly.” Mindfulness and patience will aid in my ageist recovery. After all in the past two years I have become dearest best friends with a woman who is 66 (She turned 67 today! Happy Birthday MLS!). She is so amazing, strong, and has piles of stories to share from her formative and adult years. I love this woman and I owe her a big thank you because she has reminded me that we are all just people on a life spectrum. Looking back, I’m so angry with myself for thinking this way. I suppose the same could be said for anyone after a shift in paradigm, for any prejudice.
We have to make a stand for education of our doctors, legislature and employers for the aging community. Like I said earlier, those old farts will be us some day. I sure hope there is a caring girl with tattoos sitting by my bed whispering me off to the “Otherworld” as I take my last breath.
Tapper, Joshua. “A Last Conversation With Dr. Robert Butler.” The New Old Age Blog. The New York Times. 7 July 2010. Web. 18 Sept 2012. <http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/07/a-last-conversation-with-dr-robert-butler/>.
Palmore, Erdman, PhD. “Ch.1: Introductions and Definitions.” Ageism: Negative and Positive. 2nd ed. New York. Springer. 1999. 3-18. Print.
Dittmann, Melissa. “Fighting Ageism.” American Psychological Association. May 2003. Web. 19 Sept 2012. <http://www.apa.org/monitor/may03/fighting.aspx>.
Associated Press. “Dr. Robert Butler, Was a Specialist on Aging, at 83.” Obituaries. Boston Globe, 7 July 2010. Web. 19 Sept. 2012. <http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/obituaries/articles/2010/07/07/dr_robert_butler_was_a_specialist_on_aging_at_83/>.
“Facts About Age Discrimination.” Facts. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 8 Sept. 2008. Web. 19 Sept. 2012. <http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/age.html>.