There is a stigma associated with old age, but I feel more comfortable around the people I care for than my fellow teenagers
I asked my Mum recently what she hopes old age will be like. She described someone who has memories to look back on, grandchildren to treasure and who is content with their life. I asked: “So, will you just be waiting to die?”
Working in the care sector for the past year, I’ve spent my time with a variety of older people, in terms of ability, mental capacity, optimism, conventionalism, stubbornness and sociability. My narrow perspective has widened. I can walk into a new client’s home with a completely open mind, revelling in the unexpected.
There is a stigma associated with old age. We may think of senior citizens as people who have had their time and now just cause us inconvenience. But older people are the fastest growing demographic. The age we now consider as old has increased with time, but perceptions of what old people are capable of and their value to society have not changed.
We associate senior citizens with illness and disease: dementia, strokes, heart problems, memory deficiencies, arthritis and incontinence. Some of these are a natural part of ageing but most are not. We have a tendency to patronise older people. Their interests are generalised: TV, knitting, crosswords, Scrabble and gardening. Their routines are generalised: awake at sunrise, brown cereal for breakfast, dinner of meat and two veg at 5pm. Such presumptions rob older people of the unique identities they spend decades forming. They should be acknowledged, not disregarded.
Now, I feel more at home with older people than with people my own age. I feel more comfortable around a grandfather living with Alzheimer’s who talks about the ways things were in his youth, than I do around fellow teenagers recalling tales of wild nights out. Is it because my job has meant that I’ve missed out on some of that this past year? Possibly. Is it because of the genuine and honest character of the older generation that isn’t clouded by influences from social media and celebrity trends? More likely.
I like how unaffected they are by things many young people consider as paramount: gadgets, fashion, hashtags and the number of “likes” on their Instagram posts. It’s a refreshing relief to see that these new social norms have no natural place in this older generation. It does provoke one disturbing question, though: how will society evolve due to these pressures?
When I visit clients, I prefer to listen rather than do the talking. This is partly because I’m ashamed to bring up trivial events that have happened in my short life. The people I talk to every day offer stories from a different era. I listen intently out of intrigue, like a child sat cross-legged at story time.
I’ve heard a nurse’s account of caring for tuberculosis patients, about a boy’s endurance of polio, the recent wedding of a grandson, a man’s orthodontic career, a soldier’s memories of flight lessons.
What has become glaringly obvious is that the hardest part of ageing is losing independence. My grandma said: “It’s hard watching my children do things for me that I could once do.” I could completely understand. My grandma has taught four children how to live and fend for themselves and now that process is being reversed. I wish the compassion needed for these changes could be better understood by everyone.
I’d like to work in geriatric psychiatry when I’m older. My enthusiasm to pursue this career has blossomed in part from a prolonged passion for medicine and meetings with healthcare professionals, but predominantly from my time spent as a care worker; spending time with people four times my age to carry out intimate personal care and have a personal involvement in their lives.
I have become much more aware of what is available in my community to engage older people: coffee mornings, choir, church groups and book clubs. Such small activities can transform someone’s mood, self-esteem and health. I am more sympathetic towards my grandparents and make more time and effort to see or talk to them. I believe that I understand now what it’s like to be old – a direct consequence of what I see every day in my job.
I hope that perceptions of older people, and of growing old, will change. Turning 80 should be embraced as much as turning 18. That first grey hair should be a strand of joy – not a warning, but an opportunity. The older person we will inevitably become doesn’t have to be an embodiment of stereotypes. We should make the future versions of ourselves someone we’ll be proud and happy to be. Think of old people not as a thing of the past, but of your future.