Sunday, January 3, 2016

Miss Barbara

She entered the room inquiring “Miss Barbara? Miss Barbara?” in a voice that was most assuredly not her inside voice. It was the nurse’s aide, looking for my mother, my mother who is neither hard of hearing nor deaf. My mother rolled her eyes at me, giving me her signature Make Her Go Away look. Mom is living in a nursing home at this point in her life. She is living, more accurately, between nursing home and hospital.

I have heard the term sticking in one’s craw. I have never used this term nor ever fully appreciated it. I do, however, have something now sticking in my craw. I have noticed over the past few months as my mother’s illness has progressed the prevalence with which the elderly are treated as children, or as stereotypical elderly, instead of as adults and individuals. It is sticking in my craw this misguided notion that as we age we lose our need for uniqueness, dignity, privacy, and respect.

My mother has had health care professionals, for example, try to pull the proverbial wool over her eyes, playing on her supposed lack of mental faculties. While it is true that my mother has suffered difficulties that deny her the freedom of movement and physical independence she once enjoyed, her mind is as sharp as it has always been. Not every older person, as it happens, suffers from dementia. Who knew?

Schools should teach this. They should teach the emotional aspects of aging. All too often, healthcare education focuses on terminology and meds and anatomy to the exclusion of socio-emotional factors such as self-esteem and loneliness and thoughts of death. As we pass through the calendar years, for example, we do not lose our need for privacy. Do not go into my room, which I am sharing with a person I don’t even know, and get my equipment from my personal closet without my permission. Ask before getting into my things. We maintain, too, as we age, our need for dignity and respect. Do not yell at me from the sterile, institutional hallway, inquiring if I need to go pee. Come into my room, lower your voice, and ask if you can help with that. Likewise, we never lose our desire for independence and a sense of being an adult. If I want to choose to not get better, that should be my option. If I don’t feel like participating in physical or occupational therapy, that does not mean that I am noncompliant, that means I am making an adult decision. You are not in control of my body, you are not in control of my mind, and you are not in control of my decision on how I want to live or end my life.

I am a tough old bird, as is my mother. I want to be treated always as the unique individual I am, as a grown up, as a woman in charge of her own life. Do not reduce me, ever, to a slobbering, dementia-ridden, inept two-year-old. If that is what I am, so be it. Otherwise, I will not have it.

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