Recently, I had the sad misfortune.. wait let me correct that, my father had the sad misfortune of coming down with the flu and needing to be hospitalized. When I arrived at the hospital, it seemed there were a disproportionate number of elderly suffering from dementia there – apparently also with a flu bug. It’s been epidemic this winter.
My father suffers from vascular dementia. He has been on a steady decline for well over fifteen years now. I feel compelled to say I’m lucky because my father is compliant, easy to care for, not moody or aggressive, does not wander, yet, and in general has been more or less stable. He lives in a residence for like-afflicted folk who can get themselves to the washroom and the dining room.
Back at the hospital, the nurse tending to my father was trying to put in an IV for hydration, as he had ripped out the one before. At the same time, an elderly lady stationed next to my father was growing ever more agitated. Her dementia seemed farther along than my dad’s. She had a beard – this indicating to me that a certain level of care might be missing. But then who knows? Sometimes my dad lets people shave him, sometimes not. Back to the lady, there was no one there with her. She was becoming agitated because there were hospital products on her table – gauze, ointment, and so on. The things on her table didn’t belong there – rightly so. However, no one was responding to her. No one was indicating that she was there, speaking, had a problem .. nothing. I wonder how it might have taken away from my father, had the nurse turned and said I hear you, I’ll be with you in a moment, or barring that .. how about making eye contact, smiling, nodding? And please, please, please .. this is NOT a dis on nurses. They work so very hard. We are painfully under staffed in the medical world. This is about not noticing, not responding to, not acknowledging.
There is still a bias out in the world toward the elderly, and that’s what I am talking about here. Working for a year in long-term health care – with a population mostly stricken by Alzheimer’s disease, sensitized me to their plight. People don’t want to see the elderly. We don’t want to acknowledge the decline. We see in our loved ones a reflection of our own mortality.
There is a wonderful book out – Learning to Speak Alzheimer’s, which explains to readers how to be where the loved one is. While it acknowledges the importance of the many losses, the author’s focus is on what remains of the person, what the person can still do, and on being respectful of those strengths. The author reminds us that while a person may forget – affection, love and care still register deep within a soul and should not be withheld. Everyone deserves respect and respectful care. If it were to have been a healthy young person in that bed beside my father, expressing concern about something an orderly had left behind – do you imagine they would have been responded to? I’m inclined to think yes.
Let’s stop making the elderly invisible.