Although law school casebooks seem to be my most frequent sources of reading material, I do manage to read a good novel every now and then. At the suggestion of several of my friends, I picked up “Water for Elephants” at Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the book, it revolves around the life of Jacob Jankowski and alternates between his young life working with a traveling circus and his elderly life confined to a nursing home.
While I am aware that I’m reading a fictional story, I can’t help but wonder how many elderly individuals actually go through the emotions that the author writes for Mr. Jankowski. The character discusses the betrayal he felt when none of his children offered to take him in, the indignity in having a nurse assist him in bathing, and the anger he experienced in inadvertently being treated like a child by nursing home staff. He narrates, “My real stories are all out of date. So what if I can speak firsthand about the Spanish flu, the advent of the automobile, world wars, cold wars, guerrilla wars, and Sputnik – that’s all ancient history now. But what else do I have to offer? Nothing happens to me anymore. That’s the reality of getting old…”
I think this must be true for so many older adults in our society – the reality of getting old is that people begin to treat you like a child again. Of course these people mean well, but that doesn’t negate the fact that elderly people feel like a bother, like they have nothing to offer anymore, like they have reverted back to the days of needing to be parented. The real reality of the situation, from an elderly perspective, is that they still want to be treated like an adult. They want to be respected for their wisdom and they want to maintain their dignity.
So what can we all do to help? Put yourself in their shoes and consider what it would feel like to slowly have things taken from you – your memory, your physical capabilities, your sight and hearing. Imagine the helplessness that you might feel to suddenly need a caretaker when you’re used to doing things on your own. Maybe most important of all, listen to the elderly folks in your life; there’s a good chance they just want someone to talk to.
Who knows? You might even discover that your loved one was once part of the whimsical world of a traveling circus…