by Debbie Hommel, ACC/MC/EDU, CTR

While waiting in line at the post office, I stood behind a small elderly woman who was at the counter taking care of her postal needs.  She had a very large purse with lots of zippers and a variety of smaller change purses.  She had many questions for the postal worker and kept moving money and items in and out of her purse, zipping and unzipping her purses.  She was a little hard of hearing and had to ask the postal worker to repeat her answers.  The postal worker showed in her tone of voice and actions that she had no patience for this older person.  At one point, she looked over the head of this elderly woman – at me and the line behind me, rolling her eyes in exasperation.

If the person in front of me had been a person of different national origin or race or practiced a specific religion or had a physical disability – would this postal worker have shown the same disrespect or impatience?  Most likely not as she would fear being accused of discrimination.  It is unfortunate in our society that treating the elderly differently or discriminating against them for their advanced years, is accepted practice.   Discrimination against the elderly is known as ageism.  The term ageism was coined by US gerontologist Robert N. Butler in 1969.  At that time, it was added to the list of specific discriminations of racism and sexism.  Ageism includes treating the elderly in a negative way as well as perpetuating negative stereotypes of aging.    In today’s advertising, the elderly are often characterized as grumpy, unkempt, dependent, self absorbed, a little daffy and eccentric.  The activity professional and others who work in long term care have a more humanistic perspective regarding aging and the lifestyles of the elderly.  We work tirelessly to provide individual opportunities to each person to live life to the fullest and in the manner they choose to live life, regardless of age.

To begin changing society’s negative perspective toward aging and to promote positive images of aging, the activity professional can introduce the following tasks or actions:
1. Have the most amazing and dynamic activity program possible.  A solid therapeutic activity program which includes group, individual and 1-1 programs is the best antidote against the negative stereotype of the elderly sitting in a rocking chair, watching life go by.
2.  Develop a viable and working Resident Council.  Empowering your residents to have a voice and use their voice to speak out about life in the facility and the community is essential in showing others that the elder cares about others and not just about themselves.
3. Embrace person centered care and the culture transformation movement.  The philosophies and principles of these models of care emphasize new attitudes toward aging and what it means to get older.  These concepts stress the individual nature of each person and living life to the fullest, as each person would like to live life.
4. Keep your residents engaged in life in the community through trips and outings.   If you facility has a van or bus, make active use of that van.  Make sure the van has the name of the facility painted brightly on the side so everyone sees you out and about.  If your community/town has an annual parade, with floats and decorated trucks, think about entering your facility van.   Think of the positive impact you will have with a group of smiling elders waving from a facility bus in the local Columbus Day or Independence Day Parade.
5. Develop an active and contributing community role for your residents.  Fundraising for local charities, participating in Senior Citizen day at the mall, adopting the local animal shelter and visiting local schools are community oriented tasks which demonstrate the elder is an active and viable member of the community.
6.  Take advantage of community awareness days of any kind.  National Senior Fitness Day, National Nursing Home Week, National Nurses Day, and National Good Neighbor Day to name a few, would be opportunities for your residents to sponsor a community event and invite community members into their home.  This would show the community how life goes on within and outside the walls of your facility.
7. Initiate facility chapters of organizations for your residents to join, while inviting local community members to be a part of your chapter.   The Red Hat Society, The Gray Panthers, the VFW, the local Garden Club and other groups can be initiated and conducted at your facility.  Integrating your elders with members of the community breaks down the age barriers.
8.  Re-define aging for yourself.  No matter your personal chronological age, your outlook has an impact on others.  Purge yourself of any negative ageist attitudes which may be lurking in the back of your mind.  Be true to the rights of all individuals, regardless of age.
9. Assume the role of a positive aging advocate.  Whenever you encounter a negative attitude or action, don’t be afraid to speak out in a positive and constructive way.

Are you wondering what happened when I approached the counter at the Post Office, after the elderly woman finished her business?  The postal worker saw the anger in my eyes and mistakenly thought I was equally annoyed with the older woman.  She suggested the woman should stay at home and get someone else to do her errands for her.  I told the postal worker I couldn’t disagree with her more and we should all be so lucky as that woman – to be out and about doing errands at her age.  The postal worker retorted with a bit of a snort and stated she’d rather be dead than a nuisance to others.  My parting comment to the postal worker was “be careful what you wish for”.  As I left, I heard a few chuckles and at least one “bravo” from the line of people behind me.

Age is opportunity no less, than youth itself, though in another dress.
And as the evening twilight fades away,
The sky is filled by the stars invisible by the day.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow