What’s In a Name??

Back on line, at least for the moment. September was a crazy month, but the dust should start to settle soon. I will be going to visit Lakeview Ranch in Darwin, Minnesota tomorrow, attending a fundraising dinner, and then speaking at St. Cloud State University with Dr. Richard Taylor on Friday. Lakeview Ranch, founded by Judy Berry, is a community for people living with dementia that has garnered praise for its compassionate, drug-free care. Judy just won an award from the RWJF for her efforts, (as I have blogged earlier).

The words “elder” and “elderly” are being tossed around in another iteration on http://www.changingaging.org, so I thought I’d cross it over to this post. There are many people who see the word “elderly” as a simple modifier for an old person, and don’t see why culture change advocates recoil at the word. Here is the reply I posted yesterday:

“While the word “elderly” COULD carry any connotation, the usual result in our society is that it suggests an image of a frail, broken, dependent person. The rather common usage, therefore, of a term that paints aging in such a negative light contributes to the negative image of older people that The Eden Alternative, ChangingAging and other culture change movements try to dispel.

“We are hoping that people will come to see elderhood as a distinct developmental stage–not purely defined by loss of physical ability, but rather a synthesis of life experiences into a form of wisdom and perspective not generally seen in younger adults. This is borne out by many studies that show older adults process information through a richer emotional and psychological tapestry.

“Word choice is all about neurolinguistic programming. Certain words can bias our view of people, and we choose a more positive language, in order to help us make the paradigm shift to a more positive view of aging.”

On the positive side, we have resuscitated the word “elder” and increased its usage in a society that has largely forgotten the term. We choose this word, as it comes from traditional societies where elders had positions of respect. Not only were they not excluded from mainstream society, their wisdom was valued and they were often sought for advice on matters both large and small. This fosters a more positive view of aging.

Beyond that, The Eden Alternative does not even assign a particular age range to an elder. We define the term as follows: “An elder is any person who, by virtue of life experience, is here to teach us how to live”. This includes our frailest elders, who teach us every day to be kind, compassionate and patient, and who show us how to create caring communities. It also encompasses younger people who, by virtue of their challenges, live a similar life experience to many of their older counterparts.

Some of the younger people who live in nursing homes reject the term “elder”, but often when you explain what an elder is in positive, developmental terms, they agree that they fit the bill!

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2 Responses to What’s In a Name??

  1. Helen says:

    I just commented on Bill Thomas reiteration of your words on Facebook, as per: Thank you for this clarification and view. Absolutely agree. And although we can consciously choose to say ‘elder’ over ‘elderly’, don’t really think it’s going to make even a wee dent in a paradigm shift. Still, it’s all about small shifts. Best place to start is in the ‘communications’ [written and verbal] of all facilities concerned with elders. Oddly, my own elder said to me last night: ‘I’m an elderly woman and I’m just about dead.’ It’s ingrained… even with our elders.

    And at about the same time [i.e. an hour ago on Facebook, ‘Barbara Ann’ said: As much as we’d like to invest ‘elderhood’ with more meaning than ‘kicking your foot above your head’ at age 88, I think native Americans tend to ‘own’ the term . . . . even Shakespeare cast Lear in a negative light because of his aging. My bet — watch the Rolling Stones really age . . . .then we’ll like aging a whole lot more. Keith Richards is already there – Johnny Depp’s portrayal in ‘Pirates’ took the wise and funny quirks of Keith and worked it into another unforgettable character.

    But really, Al, when you say: ‘This includes our frailest elders, who teach us every day to be kind, compassionate and patient, and who show us how to create caring communities’, how do you account for the busty and elderly woman who’s propped up in her bed [with side rails in place], and who wails, incessantly, ‘Where are my babies, where are my babies?’ This happened recently when I took my mother into respite. As it turned out, my 92-year-old with advanced dementia, who was about to take the opposite bed in a 4-bed ward for a 9-day respite, meandered up to this noisy soul. She gently took the hand of the lonely elder [who’d clearly never had children], and who recoiled and snapped. My elder mother persisted. She introduced herself [to a grunt and grimace], and then patted a stuffed cat on the bed and said, ‘What a lovely little doggie’. The elder in the bed arched and with rising animosity, started hitting my mother violently on the arm. She screamed, ‘It’s not a doggie, it’s my baby!’ Even then, my elder mother stepped back, ever so slightly, and was completely unphased. Yet the senior nurse and myself were recoiling.

    In this scenario, is the aggressive woman in the bed here to ‘teach us how to live’?

    My elder is such a beautiful and loving soul. She constantly expresses gratitude and love. Yet she’s largely exiled by her own children. In her expression of advanced dementia, she never stops talking – and in circular and untrammeled streams of consciousness. She’s clever enough to grab a word or phrase from passing conversations and weave it into her ‘own’ story, which then quickly becomes a series of disconnected thoughts. Her stories always incorporate the words ‘home’ or ‘going home’, often in quick succession [even though she’s still very happily living at home]. It truly dements my older siblings and their wives. Further, they tell me [in their very infrequent visits], that she talks ‘gobbledygook… from beginning to end’. They reckon she should be in a nursing home… apparently because she no longer expresses her highly intelligent self.

    In this scenario, is my mother here to ‘teach us how to live’?

    Further, I can certainly say that as primary carer she challenges and thus teaches me every day to be kind, compassionate and patient. But how does this translate to the immediate family, and thereby the broader community – and in the big picture, showing us how to create caring communities?

    Truly, I’m stumped.

    • Elizabeth says:

      As you say, every day she challenges and teaches you -and you in turn, dear soul, are challenging and teaching your family, and all of us in the broader community, by your loving example of how to live in a sometimes difficult circumstance with dignity and grace. Thank you.

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