The Case for Elderhood
Ronni and Paul

On Respect For Elders

category_bug_ageism.gif BBC News reported a story last week headlined “Centenarian takes computer course,” in which Sidney Platt, who turned 100 in March, answered the standard inquiry, obligatory in all media interviews with people who have reached the century mark: To what do you attribute your old age:

“Porridge is the secret to a long life,” said Mr. Platt. “I have it in the morning and it’s the best start to the day.”

Aw, isn’t that cute. Almost as cute as the headline and the computer centre director’s standard comment in such stories: “He is one of the trail blazers of the centre…He’s an amazing character and a real inspiration to others.”

Also last week, New York Times Op-Ed columnist, Maureen Dowd, in recounting her mother’s short-term stay in a nursing home, commented on the behavior of the residents:

“All through the night, Alzheimer’s patients would moan: ‘Help me! Why doesn’t anyone come to help me?’ They were unable to remember the last time an attendant stopped by…

“Soon the residents began acting as if I were one of them, just one with better mobility. They would call out for me to fix them tea in the microwave – ‘Just Sweet ‘N’ Low,’ one woman ordered briskly."

Another woman asked Ms. Dowd to telephone her daughter. When no one picked up the phone, she left a message on the answer machine.

“As I hung up, the old woman looked up at me with big suspicious eyes. ‘What are you doing in my room?’ she demanded in a hostile voice. She had forgotten me already.”

It’s all about Ms. Dowd.

These two stories are almost perfect demonstrations of two extremes of media interest in people in their end-of-life years. In the first case, it is what Nina at Nina Turns 40 (responding in a comment to “Crabby’s Bad Hattitude”), termed the “cute-ification” of elders which, in effect, infantilizes us: “Isn’t he cute, that old coot at the computer” – robbing him and everyone in extreme old age of the respect and dignity automatically accorded mid-life adults.

In the second story, it is the abhorrence – without a shred of shame or compassion – of what old age can sometimes inflict on our bodies and minds that is so hateful - and moreso when Ms. Dowd's entire story was in service to a cheap laugh, in the last sentence, at the expense of the women she described so uncaringly.

“Old age is and will always remain difficult,” says geriatrician, Dr. William H. Thomas, in a remarkable book titled, What Are Old People For? But nature has her reasons - and her compensations.

I have recently realized how shallowly I have scratched the surface in writing about “what it’s really like to get older." There is much more to do at Time Goes By.

“If aging is truly a catastrophic prelude to death, an alien rot imposed on an unwilling adult, then it deserves the dread it currently engenders. But what if aging and old age are a normal, natural ripening?

“Even a brief examination of the world around us would offer support for that optimistic outlook. Aging is everywhere. Far from being some dreadful anomaly, it works its way into the lives of millions of species and hundreds of billions of creatures each and every day. This ubiquity suggests that nature finds aging to be very useful, even essential.”

- William H. Thomas, M.D., What Are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World

Mainstream media has a long way to go to catch up with nature in regard to their attitude toward elders.


One of the things I hate, is people who work in nursing homes calling the residents Granny or Grandad. They do this in this country. It goes "Mamy et Papy". They think it's cute, but I suspect the only reason they do it is not to have to remember people's names. It used to drive my Aunt Fanny crazy. She said: I am not their grandmother. Why don't they use my name?

Or talking in front of them. Like: "My, doesn't she look lovely today! And she's eaten all her breakfast."

Adults do this with children too. What amazes me is how they don't hear the disrespect.

Ronni, thanks for that quote at the end. Wonderful to think about. Media is so powerful in its influence. "Let the Great Work Begin."

Oh my, I've always thought - very seriously - that if I retire to France, well the municipal old-age facilities do seem rather less awful than those in England. Not if they're going to call me 'Mamy', though! One more small but excruciating reason to determine things shall change and to be part of making them change.

In our training to become volunteer long-term care ombudsmen, we are being taught that we must ALWAYS knock before entering a resident's room and we must ALWAYS use an honorific title and the resident's last name in addressing them. Our mandates include making sure that the residents are accorded our respect, that they know their rights and that they are empowered to solve their own problems, where possible.

I remember a patient once said to me (when I was working for a family practice doc) that society has a huge misconception about "old people" (her words): we think that all older folk are always kind and sweet. The patient went on to say that "if they were mean 'uns when young, they're mean as old people,too."

That was my first real eye-opener to societal misconceptions about aging. This conversation happened in the mid 80's, and I still remember it well.

I volunteered at a day care center and what I learned pretty fast was, you do not greet the person by saying "How are you today." They will TELL you. I greeted them with, "it is nice to see you."

That is the other side of the coin.


Millie--Thanks for the tip! Sometimes our "small talk" can be worse than silence. Another thing that they are trying to teach us as ombudsmen is to not fear silence. Let it lay.

In my previous comment on ombudsman training, I failed to say that we are not allowed to enter the resident's room, or sit, unless the resident invites us into their room and indicates that we should sit. Those of us who, in our professional lives, worked in a climate where we barged into one another's offices and plopped ourselves down will have a hard time with some of these strictures. But, the point of according respect is well taken.

Thanks for writing this column--I am always frustrated when people treat the elderly like big children. And I have to catch myself sometimes when I'm dealing with my father so that I don't talk to him as though he were a kid, so I guess I'm not immune to stereotyping.

Porridge, eh? Damn. Is it too late to start at 60?

A thoughtful and interesting post. My father always hated the way nurses and doctors would call him by his first name, but then in his last time in hospital, some new rule had been enacted and it was "Mr Cunliffe" until he said, "Call me Arthur". Its all about respect really isn't it. incidentally, I know a couple aged 92 and 93 who attribute their long life to four glasses each of red wine every day. Two at lunchtime and two at dinner. The only problem with that is that they then sleep for three hours every afternoon! All the best, Tom

Our Aunt Lizzie stayed with us until she was 101 and then went into a home for her last 3 years.

One day the local Member of Parliament, who had exquisite manners, came to have lunch with the residents and was seated beside Lizzie. We were on the table behind and heard the delightful dialogue.

" My name is George. I am very pleased to meet you Miss C. Are you happy here?"

"Very, thank-you. Now, please call me Elizabeth. We're all friendly here. They can't do enough for us, you know. For example, Mr. George, I'm sure that they would cut up your meat nice and small for you if you ask them, they always do mine. Much better for your digestion."

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