Introducing the TGB Elderlaw Attorney – Orrin Onken

Elder Shame and Ego

Recently, a friend who is in our age group – about 73 now – dislocated his shoulder. It affected some nerves in his hand and fingers and recovery, even with diligent rehab exercises, is slow. One of the effects is that for a time, he had difficulty tying his shoes.

He could do it, but it was slow-going involving several tries and could take up to five or ten minutes. Although he has come to know some of the young regulars at his gym who are professional trainers and who show him how to get the most from his workout, he told me he was certainly not going to ask any of them for help tying his shoes.

We broke into rueful laughter – instant communion between two old farts who understood intuitively that this was equally ridiculous and understandable.

Ridiculous because we're in our 70s, for gawd's sake - anyone can see we are old and shit happens at our age. Understandable because admitting our infirmities diminishes us in the eyes of younger people - and ourselves, a thought that circles us right back to ridiculous.

In his important book, What Are Old People For?, Dr. Bill Thomas writes:

“We tremble before the loss of function that defines the edge of our social world. There is a calamity, nearly as fearsome as death itself, which is ready to claim those who wander off the path of adulthood.

“Old age threatens us with social death, a banishment from our accustomed place in society.”

So, the shame we feel lies in failing to live up to requirements of a culture that bestows power, influence and prestige on active adults who project youthfulness or can, at least, affect its illusion. Everyone else is ignored, dismissed, made invisible.

No wonder my friend was loath to ask, as I would be in the same situation, for help with his shoes. Because we know society has no tolerance or place for the decline of age, we cling to such shreds of ego for as long as possible.

Not that I much like myself for it.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ellen Younkins: Lost Love


Short post about a huge issue. Good reminder of do's and don'ts.

I think society in general does have tolerance for it and would not mind helping at all. It's media that makes older people think they would. I cannot count the times I have seen an older woman or man in the store and I wondered if they will be offended if I offered to reach the shelf that it looks like they are looking toward or if they seem to have a problem reading a label. I generally offer but it takes my having a moment that is slow in the store, where I am not rushing down aisles to get out of it to even notice. I think if they'd say -- can't read label (I recognize that because of my mother's need to carry a magnifying glass because of macular degeneration). I bet a lot of people would offer if those with a weakness of some sort would just tell them.

Another story of the situation was we were at a clinic for low cost rabies shots. Right in front of us was an older gentleman with a small dog. The line wasn't moving and we'd been there quite awhile when he left with his dog. I felt concerned the line had been too much for him, wished he'd asked us to save his place so he could go out and walk around, and kind of kept my eyes open for him in case he came back. By then the line was much longer and still not moving. Then I saw him at the cash register talking to a clerk. I told my husband and he went over to ask if the man would like to come back. He did and nobody behind us complained or said a word. I think people like to help, feel good helping, but they have to be given a chance.

I have been stubbornly and ferociously clinging to my independence and determination to "do it myself" for the 55 years I've had a disabling illness, but I'm happy to say I've given up that foolishness now as I approach 80. I'll gratefully accept any help I can get, and people seem happy to give it. Doors are held for me, offers to carry bags come out of nowhere, even an offer from a stranger of an arm to steady me when traveling. Why should I feel diminished by that? When I was able to be the helping one, I did it--now it's my turn to be helped.
According to one scientific study recently done, not only is the person doing the good deed made happier, but also people who only observe the act. Why should I deprive two or more people a moment of happiness, as well as myself?

The subject of shame, whether it comes from internalized ageism, fear of others' rejection or ridicule or actual isolation is a big subject in our society. Another thought-provoking post!

Perhaps this phenomenon is less traumatic for women than for men. Why? Because by the time functional problems begin for women, most of them have already endured the social injury of having "lost their looks." You wrote about this issue some months back.

Women become invisible when they lose their physical attractiveness. Perhaps admitting a functional shortcoming after that painful milestone is passed is less jarring than what older men may experience.

Velcro strips instead of laces helps make the whole laces bit moot. We also rely on Crocs that have no adjusters at all.

I never have any trouble asking for help with hoisting my carry-on into the overhead bins, but these are strangers.

I ride bikes with a group here in our RV Park once a week for about 10 mi round trip. Most are much younger than I. The wind blows like stink around here, so sometimes I am obliged to ask for someone to go slow in front of me so I can draft. Last time was really awful. I even got suggestions that maybe I should get an electric assist bike. In my hearing, someone said something about travelling only as fast as the slowest member. I love these trips. Do you think I'm going to give them up? They can just suck it up and hope they're still going at my pace when they hit 77.

Growing up I watched my mother and her sisters care for their parents. I try to always be aware and observant of elders; sometimes catching someone's eye and a quick smile can be helpful. I feel it's important to show respect and consideration for our elders. Thanks for writing this post.

PS Lyn, the couple who were my windbreaks last week truly enjoyed helping and are dear people. You're right that, in a way, giving people opportunities to help is good for us all.

Elastic shoelaces. My sister suffered a stroke a few years ago and she ties her sneakers with elastic shoelaces. You tie them once and now they just slip on and off.

thank you for bearing the courage to report and admit to the dreaded realities of social defeat. anyone who is honest with themselves can quietly udder a shameful cry.

One word: velcro.

I have always been reluctant to ask for help when needed and it's hard to do so now, but I do gladly accept assistance when necessary.

I get mixed results when I ride an electric cart in the grocery store. Some people ask me if I need help when I am struggling to get something off a high shelf. Others glare at me for being slow. Guess which age group offers help. If you guessed the elders you would be wrong. They are the rude ones. Not all elders are wise or kind and not all young people are indifferent or mean.

Well said!!

Darlene (and others)...
What I did not (forgot?) to state explicitly in this post is that even in elderhood, it appears that we are eager to divide ourselves into a hierarchy - too often, in our tribe, ranking healthier, more active individuals above those are less healthy.

And, as you note, Darlene, sometimes it is the healthy of our own generation who distance themselves in word and deed from the less lucky.

Yes, a lot of it is luck. Each of us may be only a fall, a stroke, heart attack, accident or normal decline away from joining the slower and less mobile among our age group.

I am embarrassed to realize that I have held myself separate, better in some sense, from the less mobile. Shame on me.

I have an 85 year old friend who is either oblivious to these slights or chooses to ignore them. He just doesn't care! I'm trying to emulate him. I've also noticed, as Darlene mentioned, that it's far more common to have a door opened by a younger person.

What I find appalling is how rapidly the older generation, (who know better), adopted the rude behaviors we started seeing several years ago.

Apparently they're the parents of the population segment we see so frequently now, who act as though they own a full 10 ft radius around themselves, and 3 car lengths when they're driving?

Oh gosh, it wouldn't bother me at ALL to ask a gal at the gym to tie my shoes! We're all different. I think it would be more difficult for men...

If ever I catch myself feeling reluctant to accept when someone stands up to give me their train or bus seat, I remember how easy it was to say yes to such an offer 47 years ago when I was pregnant. And then I beam a smile and say a big thank-you and sit down. I actually think most people like being helpful.

The only time anyone has ever been rude to me for being old was one time in a rail station concourse when I was walking slowly and some young guys behind me said 'Get a move on, granny.' I think they were surprised at my quick response, which was a loud and angry "F*** off!" but at least it may have helped to bust their stereotype.

There is the second side to it, or maybe the second and the third.
The most important: I strongly believe that as long as I can do things by myself, even if they are increasingly difficult, I should try to do it - the version of "use it or loose it" . This why I often politely refuse help with carrying packages lifting things and such.
The "third side" is that some offers of help are exceedingly condescending, as when somebody
tries to explain to you how to find the store on the map in the shopping mall or how to press the elevator button. People often assume that mental deterioration goes hand in hand with the visible physical decline and it upsets me. On the other hand I am always grateful when somebody gives me his seat on the subway.

Kudos, once again, to Ronni for a "thought-provoking post" (as Gaea wrote)or a "short post about a huge issue (as Tamar wrote). I liked Lyn's comment a lot (one of the added values of reading TGB is due to the comments). All I would add is that it seems to me that there are some of us who have trouble asking for help at any age. At one age, we are reluctant for certain reasons and at a later age we're reluctant for other reasons. Being dependent is NOT fun but if you recognize that that's your situation and just try to make it easier for those who are around to help you, life is more pleasant for all concerned.

I think too that the image of our infirmities in the eyes of those much more younger is one they can't quite get their brains wrapped around as being the natural state of someone our age.

It's also a foretelling of what lies in wait for them.

Few of us want to join the ranks of the culturally invisible, ignored and/or condescended to. I agree with many responders that people are often willing to help older and/or disabled people. However, I value my independence and agree with Sophie's view: "use it or lose it" as far as functional abilities are concerned.

And, yes, I think most elders (perhaps especially we who are 75+) realize all too well that we're one medical catastrophe away from losing life as we know it and maybe ourselves in the process. We're not only concerned for ourselves but for our spouse (if we have one). It's scary to contemplate, so we try to go forward "as if" it won't happen to us, at least not today.

I don't mind asking for, or accepting, help, even while doing everything I can for myself.

My 95-year-old mother is my example for this. She's VERY independent and yet accepts help easily when she needs it.

Also, caring for my husband during his seven-year ordeal with Alzheimer's taught me like nothing else that we can end up in situations where help is not only critical, but absolutely required.

So, don't be afraid to ask. Most people are more than willing to help others.

Elastic shoelaces! I bought some when I broke my wrist a few years ago...perfect solution.

I'm curious about something, and it relates to growing old in general - is this disrespect and rudeness towards older people a Western phenomena only?

I wonder if it were a different country, Asian or Latin America for instance, would there be the same mental anguish to pretend youth has passed on?

Maybe I'm being blind to the obvious, and since I'm just turning 60 things may change.

But it seems people in Western cultures operate under serious delusions about how life really works.

Thank all of you for these wonderful comments! Most of us have had positive experiences when we have needed help. I am 84 and consider myself very fortunate not to have needed daily help but surprises occur and some angel in disguise has appeared to lend a hand. As a former EMT and hospital Volunteer for many, many years I know well how very kind strangers can be in an emergency. Let's give a cheer for the 'helpers' and a prayer of gratitude for them!

Oh so true! Just a few thoughts -- comes down to an individual knowing themselves and their limitations -- being independent only when safe -- not allowing pride to get in the way -- letting go of concern about what others may think -- genuinely making the helper feel appreciated.

I was startled when I first noticed others offering to help me, then realized I had reached that stage in life. Sometimes I nicely decline assistance, other times I welcome the help. My experience has been people are quick to ask if I would like help -- most appreciated when putting my carry-on in overhead space.

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