Sunday, September 30, 2012

Acknowledge the Abilities of Older Adults

Photo by Susan NYC
If you go to the grocery store between 9 am and 11 am, you might encounter a demographically disproportionate number of older adults. You might be tempted to view them of clones, each inhabiting the same archetype of "old person." However, if you sat down with each of them, you would discover a wide range of personalities, skills, perceptions and interests   From experience, have you found this to be true of individual people who constitute a crowd of teenagers at the food court in the mall?   It's very easy to stereotype, but it ultimately hinders relationships and limits the contribution of some groups within the larger culture. 

Unfortunately, like many other people who share one defining feature, older adults are subject to stereotypes and myths, some of which I have addressed in previous blog posts. (See posts on Elderspeak, PC Terms for starters.)

Yes, older adults sometimes need special considerations.  The American Psychological Association (APA) has created a brochure for practitioners in an effort to improve services for our most mature citizens by recognizing some of the most common challenges for them as a group.  But as individuals, no one person is going to express the statistical norm.  Individuals will vary widely, and some are statistical outliers.  Recognizing that one one person represents the perceived norm, this brochure offers cautions against stereotyping, limiting or discriminating against older adults.

The APA also created a fact sheet based on the brochure that serves as a summary of key points.  This information includes a list of common myths, including these two:
  • Most older people are pretty much alike. (No, they are very diverse.)
  • They become more difficult and rigid with advancing years. (No, personality usually stays consistent)
In their efforts to support older adults, many people inadvertently restrict them.  I have done this myself by asking relatives in their 70s, "Do you want me to help you with your household chores?"  and "Are you going to cut back on your responsibilities in order to spend more time managing your health?"  I tell myself that I'm being helpful, but I can see my relatives' eyebrows raise before they answer--if they even choose to answer.  

In their 2005 study, Chasteen & Bhattacharyya present evidence that stereotypes can damage memory performance in older adults.  Even when the stereotyping language was later negated, it was difficult for the older adults exposed to the stereotype that "older adults have memory problems" to recuperate from the power of that suggestion.  This is just one of many research articles about the way stereotyping language can limit older adults. 

From reading research on stereotypes and from observing the reactions of older adults, I have made a greater effort to note the unique personalities held by each.

I ask myself these questions:
  • What adjectives does the person repeatedly use to describe him or herself? For example, do they perceive themselves as funny, athletic, fashionable, hard working, academic, musical, etc? 
  • What activities do they choose for themselves? Book club, church service, continued employment, time with extended family, volunteer work, reading of current events, time at the gym?  
  • What roles do they still hold? What roles did they perform for decades? What roles do they talk about the most?  Artist, parent, boss, minister, world traveler, mechanic, nurse, Sunday school teacher, cook, political activist?  
  • What objects do they have on display in their homes?  Pictures, awards, souvenirs from travel,  hand-made objects? 
Note: These are the same questions I try to  ask myself regarding people of every age in an attempt to accept their identity, to reflect it back to them, and to empower them to perform that identity in a broader context. It's really not that weird of a tactic. It's just people sometimes fail to do this with older adults.

When I pick up on cues about a person's self-identity and reflect this identity back to him or her, I get a lot more response than a raised eyebrow and a dropped jaw. I hear stories about achievements, and they aren't all in the past.  I can help them network with people who can benefit from their expertise. Most of the time I discover that people are still playing an active role in society and that they are working on projects, developing new relationships, creating, building, learning and in other ways active.

Photo of Ernie McLean by  Joe Penniston
In her book-length ethnography, City of Green Benches, Maria D. Vesperi includes accounts of several residents of St. Petersburg, Florida, including Matthew Parson, a 65 year old musician.

In 1975, Parson was living in a boarding home where he suffered abuse and neglect.  He was barely managing to meet basic needs and was fighting depression when a local newspaper reporter interviewed Parson about his musical abilities. As a result of the interview, local musicians helped Parson secure a new guitar and set up some gigs; a social worker helped him find better housing. He flourished, contributing to the broader community as a musician, reclaiming a valuable identity.

(I failed to find a picture of Parson, but here is another musician who just happens to be an older adult at the time of this photo.)

 As a volunteer at a continuing care retirement community (CCRC), one resident kept asking me to find the time to help him update his scrapbook.  About two months later I finally set some time aside for him. I first looked through existing scrapbooks and learned that Larry is a minister who has spent years counseling people with disabilities. This allowed me to define him more by his capabilities and less by his limitations.  I saw him as a capable adult making a valuable contribution to the larger community where before I focused too much on his mobility and language limitations.  I soon figured out that he didn't even really need my help with the scrapbook. He was patiently correcting my limited view of him in a non-confrontational way.  

Even for people who have real limits, it's important to acknowledge their achievements.  If anything, they are probably working extremely hard and overcoming a great deal in order to maintain their quality of life.  When I first started my graduate program, a young nursing student gave me one piece of advice that has proven valuable: "Focus on the capabilities of older adults, not their limits."  This is more than just a nice thing to do. It's been instructive and life affirming.  And it's valuable advice to apply to people of any age.

It took me several months to more appropriately see another resident at the CCRC where I volunteer. I first met Patty Lamont the same week that she suffered a mild stroke. I assumed that she was using most of her time to recuperate from the damages. However, over the next two years, I learned that in addition to taking the physical therapy services by storm, she does sewing repairs for her neighbors, she leads a group that makes quilted handbags, she organized a group of women to help do hair and make up for other residents, she serves on several committees to represent resident concerns, she signs up for nearly every day trip, and she attends most activities held on site--social, physical, spiritual, political, and culinary. Patty is busier and more productive than I am at 30 years her junior. 

I hope to abandon my own incorrect perceptions.  I will be aided in this effort by spending more time working directly with older adults and by reading evidenced-based research on the affects of language and attitude.  I am grateful for my mature friends who focus on my capabilities instead of limiting me to the mistakes I have made while learning how to best support and empower older adults.


James Bond and Other Heroes Preserving Power

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