Falling Down and Staying Down (Loss of Independence and the Elderly)
As we entered our teenage years, many of us looked forward with eagerness to the day we turned eighteen. For us, our eighteenth birthday symbolized the moment that culturally we were accepted to break away from our families and hometown communities and claim our independence, an independence we felt would last for the rest of lives. Unfortunately, many of us don’t realize that eventually our independence will fade away, sometimes just as quickly as it came.
Though gaining our independence at eighteen brings a feeling of accomplishment, losing our independence in our elderly years brings feelings of shame and embarrassment. Our country is one that has prided itself on its values of freedom and independence. We applaud those who take initiative and work hard to make their mark on the world. We tend to ignore and look down upon those who are unable to contribute to our society, those who no longer have the ability to work, to provide, and sometimes to even leave their own home.
With the Olympics here and the Paralympics soon to follow, we will soon find ourselves in front of our televisions, cheering on the underdogs. We become inspired by the men and woman who have lost limbs and gone through untold hardships yet still manage to remain independent and strong enough to compete for a medal. We have an attitude in this country that when you get down, you have to get back up.
All of these feelings and expectations weigh down on our elderly as they reach the point of dependency where many of them, no matter how hard their minds fight it, will never run, cook, or even drive again. The loss of being able to perform these simple actions damages their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.
Paula Span, a blog writer for the New York Times, said, “Dependence generates anger, shame, defiance. It’s acceptable only for the very young; among adults, it’s not merely an uncomfortable personal reality, it’s un-American. We are all supposed to be able to take care of ourselves, apparently forever.”
There is not much we can do to change the views of our society, but we can have a large influence on the views our elderly loved ones hold of themselves. As we often look at the TV or Internet and see models, actors, athletes, etc. who have attributes that we wish we could see in ourselves, our elderly loved ones watch Americans across our nation praise and cheer the man who ran his first marathon when he was ninety years old or the woman who finished college at age eight-eight.
We never praise the average American, the man who worked in a factory his entire life supporting his family and now, due to so much physical exertion in his younger years, is housebound and requiring 24-hour care to help with simple everyday tasks he wishes he could still perform. Similarly, we never hear stories about the woman who raised eight children, took care of them through all their troubles, and now is left alone in a nursing home to be taken care of as if she were a child again.
The majority (two-thirds) of older Americans will reach a point of dependency in their lives when they will require help with everyday tasks. Many of these Americans are Veterans, past leaders of service organizations, parents, active community leaders, and most of them will be us one day. As we visit and spend meaningful time with our elderly loved ones, it’s important for us to always be aware of the expectations we may place upon them whether purposeful or not.
When a person has lived eighty years, they certainly have stories to tell. Take a moment to find out the great accomplishments they have done in their lives. Make them feel proud of where they’ve been and what they’ve done. Let your elderly loved ones know that just because they need some extra help doesn’t mean they’re any less of a person in your eyes.
The world will always favor the underdog who rises from the dust, but we can’t allow ourselves to forget the underdog who no longer has the ability to rise, but who doesn’t deserve any less praise and support. So as we cheer on our Paralympic athletes, let’s not forget to give a shout-out to Grandma, sitting beside us in her rocking chair, or Grandpa, eagerly awaiting our visit in his facility. They may not be television stars, but they’re family, and that should make them important to us.