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You Don't Lose Your Civil Rights Just Because You Get Old

When I wrote about the Dangers of Elderspeak a couple of weeks ago, I was pleased to receive an email note from Jayne Mullins about how that kind of demeaning language can be and is, as she writes, used “to groom people for being taken advantage of or worse.”

Ms. Mullins knows whereof she speaks. For many years she has worked as an Elder Abuse Program Specialist for a non-profit, the Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources (GWAAR).

In that position, she recently completed a paper titled The Language We Use or I'm Not Your “Honey” that is being distributed to professionals, volunteers and others who work with elders and disabled people throughout the 70 counties of Wisconsin where the GWAAR is active.

In a handy table, the paper lists condescending, ageist words and phrases next to recommendations for more respectful language. She has allowed me to post the paper and you can download it here (.doc format).

In a delightful telephone conversation, Jayne made several points that I will be adopting around this blog when discussing ageist issues. My favorite is “You don't lose your civil rights just because you get old.”

As Jayne said that to me, I was reminded of a recent news story about Jean Murrell Capers, a 100-year-old Cleveland judge who retired just two years ago and was recently forced by the Cuyahoga County court system to leave her home to live in a retirement community.

According to the reporter, this move came about because

”She has taken to falling - a number of times in recent months. She's has also been a regular visitor to University Hospitals over the past two years, for a variety of ills. She's been losing weight from what already was a petite frame...

“People who care about her...sought...help at Cuyahoga County Probate Court, which appointed a guardian for her.

“At an instant, the former Cleveland Municipal Court judge's decision-making authority was taken away and given to someone else. Her guardian now approves decisions as basic as where she lives and when she can venture out into public.”

There is not enough information in the news story for you or me to have an opinion about the judge's capability to decide for herself but it does note that she is still paying rent on her apartment in addition to the monthly cost of the retirement community.

That leaves me to wonder why a home health care aide could not have been found that would allow the judge to remain in her apartment where she wants to be.

"They say they're doing this because they love me and want what's best for me,” says the judge. “But I can still take care of myself. I know what's best for me. I'm best left alone."

I guess in Cuyahoga County even a beloved local judge loses her civil rights because she is old.

That said, here is what I like about the judge's story and about what Jayne is doing with the paper she wrote on ageist language: they are both about the well-being of care receivers as opposed to caregivers.

With newsletters, rss feeds, Google alerts and other technology, I keep close watch on elder health issues and what is almost entirely overlooked are the care receivers. In the popular media, it is all about caregivers and their problems.

I'm not saying caregiving isn't tiring and isn't hard work. I did it 24/7 for my mother while holding down a full time job long distance from her home. It was exhausting and I know I was fortunate that it lasted only four months.

But as tired as I was every day, it was impossible for me to forget what the purpose was: in my case, to do everything possible to make my mother's journey from life on earth to whatever comes next as easy and comfortable and good as possible FOR HER. And that I could rest when that had been accomplished.

Look, I'm nobody special. Without listing all my failings, one of them is that I am endowed with a high level of selfishness. But even for me there are circumstances – a dying or disabled friend or relative comes to mind – when self-concern is set aside.

What has bothered me for a long time is that for all the ink spilled in recent years on the health issues of a growing elder population, almost all the public attention is given not to the care receivers, but to the caregivers.

Without taking anything away from hard-working caregivers, hurray to Jayne Mullins of GWAAR and to Phillip Morris, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reporter who wrote about Judge Jean Murrell Capers for placing attention on the people for whom caregiving is the point.

You shouldn't lose your civil rights just because you get old and you shouldn't be the forgotten person in discussions about caregiving.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine - Grandmother's Flower Garden: My Life in Quilts


I had a run-in recently with a young clerk at a convenience store.

He: "Hi, dude."

Me: "Where do you get off, calling a customer like me 'dude'?"

He: "What should I call you, 'sir'?"

Me: "Exactly. Call me 'sir'."

Sad but so true - a coworker whose husband had bladder cancer and now has an ostomy bag, talks about nothing but herself and how tired she is. I keep thinking .."imagine how HE must feel!"

My neighbor...(early 70's) got cold feet about getting a pacemaker. He suddenly didn't feel confident about the surgeon. He cancelled the procedure on the day that it was supposed to take place. (Which of course was a bold and unconventional thing to do) Well...the surgeon was furious. In what we perceived as a 'retaliatory' move, the surgeon had my neighbor's driver's license taken away. My neighbor handled all this very well (he enjoyed walking and biking everywhere) and he eventually got the pacemaker put in (by a different surgeon)... then he got his license back.

I seriously doubt that the Dr would have yanked a younger person's license (but of course the Dr would argue that younger people generally don't need pacemakers). What got me is that it was so quick...it was like the day after the cancelled surgery when my neighbor got the notice that he couldn't drive! There is no one to turn to when things like this happen. I am always taken aback by the histrionics pertaining to elders driving. Yes, there are accidents that involved aging people, (there is a doozy in Portland right now)...but the subject brings out a kind of zealousness generally reserved for pedophiles and the like. And that fervor splashes over onto drivers (like my neighbor) who have never had an accident!

I realize my thinking may change when I'm not as healthy as I am now, but I dread becoming dependent on others (with whom I may or may not agree) more than death itself. I dread being forced out of my home and into some sort of nursing or retirement "home" where I must follow their rules and never have any privacy. And yes, I dread losing the independence of having a car and a driver's license.

Yes, PiedType nailed it. I dread going into a nursing home more than death itself. In fact, based on some recent reports in the media, going into certain assisted living facilities may shorten one's life substantially.

“People who care about her...sought...help at Cuyahoga County Probate Court,

It should read: "somebody got worried about her money". I've seen this before.

Makes me glad that nobody gives a damn about me. And guess what? My kids don't realize that there's more $ than they think & none of it goes to them. Oh they'll be mentioned in my will but only to state they can't have anything.

I just fell & broke a bone in my hand and drove myself to the doc for x-rays & to the orthopedist the next day for a really nasty cast and back home afterwards and drove myself to my P.T. session that afternoon. (My primary care doc things I need to work on my strength.) :)

I'm a damned tough old broad.

One of the names I hate the most- little lady. I don't even know where to begin about that one!

Good stuff,Ronni. I live in a community where we old people never lose our importance in civic and personal life. I have already corrected my grandchildren on the topic of making fun of old people,which is a common amusement in Seattle ,where they live,but not in Hilo,Hawaii. Being respected this way makes a big difference in our quality of life.

My 74-year-old friend is living in a "nightmare" (her words). Her son spent most of her money and the "system" that was to care for her has now decided she can't live alone. They put her in a place that was pretty good re: freedom, her own room and 3 meals a day,etc., but it was in a new town, and when she went for a walk on the first day, she got lost (who wouldn't?). The police picked her up and took her to the hospital.

Now (a month later) they've put her in a nursing home (4 beds to a room) where no one seems able to talk beyond the occasional "Hello" - (I wonder if it's because they've been there too long). She has a bracelet on her wrist that will sound an alarm is she goes too near the outer door.

Her son and the careworkers (all but one) smugly say "it's unfortunate, but it's what is best for her. She's safe". Bah humbug!! Who wants to be safe like that?
And they call her "Dear".

I will shoot myself before I would be sent to a nursing home...

Please, please whatever deity is watching over me, do not let me suffer the nightmares described above. My husband had a term he used for suicide; he humorously called it "sidewise". I think he was more accurate than he knew and I will take that route if I am able before going to a snake pit to die.

I'm with class of65.

If trapped in a nursing home against my will, I would use every bit of my being in an attempt to escape, as in the book "Papillon."

My room mates and I would get the hell out of there.

Imagine having no control of your surroundings.


After just 2 weeks in a nursing home, supposedly getting strong enough to go home, but, in fact, getting so much sicker that I had to be rushed by ambulance back to the hospital for another 2 1/2-week stay, my 3 kids swore they would NEVER let me be put in a nursing home again. I am comforted by that, but just in case.......

Nobody wants to leave the comfort of their home, but when the small percentage of elders who are no longer able to care for themselves need help, what if there isn't anyone to take them in? Is it kinder to leave them to die alone when their judgement is clearly impaired? I think the key is fear. When an older person becomes fearful of being alone, an assisted living situation can be a blessing, but anyone who doesn't have someone to look out for them whether they're on their own or in assisted living is vulnerable to losing their civil rights. If you think a friend is being ill treated - speak up!

I would rather go to a nursing home than force my child to take care of me. He has his own life to live.

However, I fervently hope I die before such a choice becomes necessary.

"Is it kinder to leave them to die alone when their judgement is clearly impaired?"

Someone once observed, correctly, that "We all die alone." What's so bad about doing so?

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