Crowns of Glory: While We’re on the Subject, What about our Aging People with Disabilities?

Hello, readers,

Happy Sunday. 🙂 In the spirit of the day, I’m reminded of some verses from Proverbs. One of them describes older citizens’ gray hair as “crowns of glory.” The other refers to children as blessings, as “arrows in [one’s] quiver”…and who knows more about having children than those who also have grandchildren and great-grandchildren? And what about that ever-handy verse, “Honor your father and mother so that your days will be long”–do we still go by the credence of “respect your elders,” or has that gone out the window?

I’m guessing it’s gone out the window. And why is that? Because American culture doesn’t show a lot of respect for the aging population, particularly those whose aging has resulted in disability (ies). The pervading attitude in America is that, once you reach a certain age, you are no longer viable or valuable to society and should live out the rest of your life in a nursing home or hopsital (and no, I’m not saying nursing homes are totally inappropriate–one, you should know me better than that, and two, we’ll get back to that in a minute).

Let’s review a basic concept, okay? Disability is a minority. No way around it, if you have a disability, you are not in the majority as we think of it. And that, as we know, comes with all kinds of unfairness and hurt that we need to work together to eradicate. But disability is also a unique minority. Why? Because it’s the only one that anybody, of any race, creed, color, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or whatever, can move in and out of quite seamlessly. Of course, some disabilities, such as CP, Down’s Syndrome, fragile X Syndrome, and so forth, you cannot “cure” (yet), or have one day, yet not have the next. But I wonder if we have forgotten–blindness, deafness, orthopedic issues not tied to an underlying condition like CP, traumatic brain injuries–those are disabilities, as well. And it only takes one car accident, one sports injury–or a little aging–to get one. So my question is, why, as we are trying to “normalize” disability for everyone else, are we still so disrespectful of our aging population in this area?

Maybe it’s because of the way we view the word “normal” (and of course, what is that, anyway?) That is, when someone is born with a disability, some people say things like “They can’t help it” or “They have an excuse.” Which reminds me–a disability is an obstacle, not an excuse. But when a person who wasn’t born with any disabilities suddenly contracts one, often through becoming older, we have a different reaction. Suddenly, that person is a burden. They cause stress. Or they cause pain. Of course, part of the pain is that for the older population, disabilities can often be a precursor to the body shutting down, which means death, and we grieve because we know that means we will lose that person. But for some people–a few (we hope) somewhat ignorant people–dealing with the old is just a big pain, period. It’s why, when you look at fiction books about utopian societies, such as Joan Lowry Nixon’s The Giver, you see stories of The Old being sent to live in a totally separate place from everyone else, and then “released” (euthanized) when the community deems it appropriate. It’s why you see older citizens euthanized in certain societies now–straight-up ignorance.

“But Chick,” you might say, “you don’t understand. The parent or grandparent in my life right now is not the person I remember. They lash out at me because they don’t know who I am. They make wild accusations. I have to feed them and change their diapers, all while raising my own kids and holding down my own job. I get frustrated.”

Sure you do. And I’m not discounting any of that, or trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. Older people can be frustrating just like anyone else–including people with disabilities. I have some older women in my life right now going through a lot of medical crises, and it is frustrating at times because of the stress the medical issues put on my family. But let me reiterate–the SITUATION, not the PERSON, is what needs to be pinpointed as the stressor. The person him or herself still deserves to be cared for with dignity and respect–just as anyone else would, and does.

Of course, as with a child or young adult with a disability, every elder-care situation is different. And yes, sometimes nursing homes might be the best option, just like group homes are appropriate for younger people with disabilities. But let me do a quick recap of what we’ve been over on this topic, with appropriate changes:

1. A nursing home is an option. It is not THE option, and should never be used out of resentment or anger.

2. There is a huge difference between a nursing home that treats its residents like family, and a big facility that doesn’t care and may even get away with abuse and neglect, just as there is a huge difference between a group home and an institution. Do your homework!

3. If the older person in your life is still able to make decisions and speak for him or herself, and they say “no nursing home,” LISTEN. Listen period, actually, to what they want and need. And even if they look incapacitated? Out of love, do to the best of your ability what you truly believe that person would want. Remember: this is probably a parent or grandparent you’re dealing with. And even if it’s not, they need your care and support. They have loved and still love you. Love them back.

4. Nursing homes, in my humble opinion, should be a last resort for the family in dire straits (i.e., severe Alzheimer’s, a relative who has become mentally ill, physical care needs that go beyond what the family can provide, and so on). In many world cultures, parents and grandparents live under the same roof as the children, and they are respected and loved. What’s more, that family system actually works. Now does that mean the older people get to say and do whatever they want, even if it hurts someone? No–just like we wouldn’t expect anyone else, with or without a disability, to get away with that kind of behavior. If an older relative is physically, verbally, or otherwise abusing someone in your home, then that needs to be addressed quickly and in the right way. But remember what the older relatives used to be? They were the ones who told stories. Who knew things you didn’t. Who might not have been right about everything–for example, let’s hope most of us don’t put butter on burns–but were generally great to have around. Why don’t we treat them like that anymore?

As you know, I love the television show Touched by an Angel. One second season episode features the angel Monica reaching out to the older, slightly senile blues club owner Sam Brown, and his grandson Zach, who wants to put him in a nursing home without truly listening to his wishes, his memories, and what he loves. Monica says to Zach, “Remember, your grandfather was once a young man. He had a mind that was strong, and a heart that was even stronger.”

Now of course, depending on how they grew up and how they treated other people, that can’t be said of every Sam Brown out there. Some of our parents and grandparents actually were abusive and neglectful, and for that, I reach out to affected readers with a virtual hug. But the sermon at my church today was on forgiveness. So maybe it’s a good time to remind myself–and my readers–that under every gray head and mind that looks confused–under every disability–there resides a strong, valuable person.

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