Pak: On the Elderly
Do we really respect our elders?
This past spring term, I went to the Dartmouth Center for Social Impact club fair and happened to be roped towards a stand titled “Dementia Scholars.” The poster’s station was manned by a handful of bright-eyed students, eager to catch my attention. They gave me the whole spiel — who they were, what they did, how often they did it. And without much thought, I wrote down my email on their list and forgot about it once I left.
Soon enough, the emails poured in. And what started out as noncommittal emails welcoming its newcomers turned into orientation, then registration and ultimately my first trip to Hanover Terrace, a nearby nursing home for elderly patients with dementia.
My initial reaction to the nursing home was aversive. The small nursing complex, lit with greasy yellow lights, had an unsettling presence. The rooms were permeated with a weird scent, the kind of stale scent a house has when the owners come back home from a week-long vacation. Grandmas and grandpas with deep wrinkles and glassy eyes wandered the halls aimlessly. And there were so many of them.
With more frequent visits, I grew used to the environment. During my time there, I got to know two women very well. I’ll call the first one Charlie. We started to talk about her family. Although she was old, Charlie definitely had no shortage of sassy, girly spunk. She spoke of her family in a teasing manner, calling her late husband “terrible” and her daughter a “brat,” but with a distinct fondness in her eyes. Naturally, I asked what their names were, and she proceeded to list her husband’s name and her son’s name, but when she reached her daughter, she hesitated and could not remember. She spent about five minutes biting her lip, squinting her eyes and urging herself to remember her daughter’s name.“Come on, Charlie, you know this, you know this,”she told herself. And when I said that it would be okay if we came back to it later, she strongly insisted that she try to remember it at that moment, for fear that she might not remember the next day or any day after that. I had known that people with dementia have terrible memory loss. But what I didn’t realize was that they themselves knew how bad their memory was and how dear those memories were to them.
Each week I visited Charlie, I introduced myself again and she received me with kindness. And with each departure, I said goodbye to an enthusiastic, lovable grandmother who couldn’t wait to see me again. But every time I came to see her, she thought I was a stranger.
There was another woman I had gotten to know towards the end of the term. I’ll call her Penny. The first day I met her, I found her crying. I didn’t want to intrude on her business, so I suggested that we listen to a local singer who was visiting the nursing home. I sat with her through the concert while we joked around and sang old songs. I’m not one who is inclined to make physical contact often, but I held her hand and stroked her hair. When the end of my visit had come, she embraced me in the warmest hug I could imagine and said, “Thank you. You’ve changed my day, and I’m so glad you came.” I remember walking back to the bus station, unable to contain my smile.
These women, and countless of other elderly patients in nursing homes, are tragically removed from the communities, relegated to hospitals and nursing homes, and therefore isolated from the rest of society. According to the United States Census Bureau, 28 percent of Americans aged 65 and older live alone. The National Council on Aging estimates that eight million adults over the age of 50 are mentally and physically affected by isolation. A survey conducted by Generations United, a non-profit organization that works to form connections between the old and the young, found that 39 percent of grandparents live more than 500 miles apart from their grandchildren.
America’s neglect of the elderly is apparent and yet ignored, possibly because American culture stigmatizes aging and death. As psychologist Erik Erickson wrote, “Lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole of life.” Contrary to America, many other cultures (particularly Asian countries) celebrate aging. In Korea, for instance, 60th and 70th birthdays are significant milestones. In India, elders are considered to be the head of the family and often have the final say on a dispute. In China, an “Elderly Rights Law” mandates people to visit their elderly parents or else face punishments, ranging from fines to jail time.
Some small steps are being taken to improve the lives of the elderly Programs like Generation United stress the importance of making intergenerational bonds and have received widespread support and success. A survey conducted with Ohio State University found that such programs “reduced loneliness for older adults and increasing levels of engagement for dementia patients who interacted with children.” Among the elderly who participated in these programs, 97% of them indicated a positive experience, noting it made them feel happy, interested, loved and even younger.
Children of course, might not be able to visit as often as their elderly relatives would like. With growing technology, life expectancy increases. But prolonging this end period of life can lead to feelings of uselessness and despondency. Thus, it is no surprise that the elderly in America seem to be one of the most overlooked populations. But their life, no matter the age, is of equal value to that of anyone else. Dartmouth students, therefore, should consider visiting the Hanover Terrace. Even an hour of caring, comforting and loving our senior citizens is well worth the trip.