THE UNSEEN ELDERLY

August 6, 2015

Recently, a conversation with an 83-year-old man reminded me that aging citizens feel largely ignored by our society.

“Have you ever noticed that seniors are invisible?” he asked.

As I thought about his question, its truth struck me.

We think others basically see us how we see ourselves. However, there’s a drastic difference. The more we age, the wider the gap becomes between our own sense of self and the world’s. How many of us look in the mirror and think, ‘That’s not me, not the real me, not the person I know.’

This 83-year-old man is a proud physician.

“Now, when people meet me, they bend down and call me ‘dear,’” he said. “They ask, ‘How are we doing?’ Even the correct pronoun has been lost to me, and the singular erased.”

Or, they don’t bend down at all, he continued. “They talk to my children, or my carer. The nurses and doctors I have come to love in the hospital, which is where I spend a lot of my time these days, are the people who sit beside my bed, call me ‘doctor’ and see beyond my wrinkles, white hair and vulnerability,” he said, adding that, “They’re still respectful and attentive.”

Occasionally, I catch myself saying that my mom ‘was’ beautiful, when in fact she still is. Or, that my dad ‘was’ clever and kind; as if the aged become ghosts in their own lives.

Sometimes, when people describe their parents, they use words like ‘naughty’ and ‘silly,’ as though they’re speaking about young children. Similarly, we often say, ‘I love children’ and ‘I love old people,’ denying them their individuality and fitting them into categories.

If we’re lucky, we grow old. Yet, our culture negates old age; we speak of ‘them’ rather than ‘us.’

This 83-year-old man is aging. Nevertheless, he still represents all the selves he has ever been; the stubborn child, the independent young man, the husband in love, the doctor, the father and the grandfather. He characterizes all of us. We all strive to be recognized. We all endeavor to be seen as unique individuals.

Let’s start with how we look at the world by seeing others as we wish to be seen ourselves and making what is invisible visible again.

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