October 1, 2016 is the United Nations-sponsored International Day of Older Persons.
I came across that fact by chance as I was doing research for an article about “caregiver stress,” a phenomenon increasingly afflicting members of the “sandwich generation” crunched between children and elderly parents.
Zola and social worker Paul Seefeldt describe the phenomenon in their recent paper “Dealing with Geriatric Shame”:
Aside from the ordinary kinds of shame people may feel – for example, the shame of needing to borrow the rent or mortgage money – we have witnessed a special geriatric shame in its manifold forms when it comes to growing old in today’s culture. Geriatric shame, we propose, is the result of specific feelings: shame at appearing old, shame at needing help, shame at feeling useless or purposeless, shame at being lonely, and perhaps shame at one’s failures at living. To this group, other shames can be added – for example, when a middle-class individual must, in old age, live very frugally because of reduced income, or when someone can no longer clean his or her apartment and is ashamed of his or her home.
“Much of this,” Zola adds, “is a result of ageism in our culture.”
Years ago, working as a wheelchair-van driver, I learned to perceive and overcome my own ageist attitude. I became patient when an old person was slowly counting change in front of me in a supermarket line. I became understanding when walking with an aging woman who couldn’t maintain a quick pace, or when interacting with an elderly man who couldn’t walk at all and needed a wheelchair.
Then, after I left that part of my life in the past, I observed my empathy gradually eroding. It’s natural to separate oneself from those who are different. To become distant, unsympathetic.
In the United States there are some 70 or 80 million Baby Boomers. A great many have living parents who need help with daily activities. Caring for elderly loved ones can be difficult and draining, both physically and emotionally. People can become impatient and distant even with their own relatives.
Perceiving that attitude, an old person can start to feel shame. That’s why I like the idea of focusing on honoring the aged. Shame is the opposite of what elders should have to feel.
In the United Nations’ 2002 Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, “Member States…called for the elimination of age discrimination, neglect, abuse and violence.” The plan “contained guidance on the right to work, the right to health, participation and equality of opportunity throughout life, stressing the importance of the participation of older persons in decision-making processes at all levels.”
That all sounds good. But had you ever heard of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing?
Neither had I. And did you know about the International Day of Older Persons?
Neither had I. But we don’t need the UN, or a special day, to make an effort to understand the aged, and to become not only patient but respectful. Especially in an age when elder abuse is known to be common, healthy people who haven’t reached old age have a duty to the aged, not only to help them when they need it, but to do so gladly, and with respect.
And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.