Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Lost Dignity of the Elderly

Go to this link on Facebook, then come back and let me vent for a moment.

Let me have a few seconds of your life to discuss the treatment of the elderly today.  Unless, of course, you have a parent who you need to shuttle off to a nursing home or something?

See, our fast-paced lives rarely make room for those who are getting along in their years.  Oftentimes they are treated not even as second-class citizens, but rather as pets or nuisances who we can discard to "a farm upstate" when they become a "burden" to us.

Do you realize just how horridly wrong that is?

Okay, I admit that the story of the photo in the link I posted is not one of someone being shoved into hospice, but rather of a woman who has chosen to check herself into it -- maybe at a doctor's recommendation, or maybe because she just realized she needs help.  We don't get that side of the tale.  But we do get the heartwarming story of someone who went out of his way to do exactly the opposite of what I am railing about today: he gave up his time to bring some joy to who I can only imagine is/was a lovely, warm-spirited old Belle of a lady who, at that moment, was basically saying goodbye to the world in which she had made her life.

What kills me is that this story is the exception to the rule.  And I am as guilty as anyone else.  Maybe worse than the average Joe, even.

I spent last weekend with my grandparents in Pennsylvania as the second of four separate legs of a two-week trip through our family in the northeast.  My grandfather, who has Parkinson's Disease, has been steadily making his way downhill over the majority of the last decade.  It has been hard on me, and the rest of the family, to watch the Patriarch of the Soho (Slovak) side of my family -- a man who slaved, who worked himself ragged, for fifty years to raise and sustain his family in a region that is, in no way, kind to its people.  Between harsh winters and a lifestyle that time long ago passed by, that area of the southwestern Pennsylvania coal belt is simply brutal to its residents.

Yes, he has made his share of mistakes along the way.  Certainly, there are people who have disagreed with him and who have been turned off by a man who has held firm to his beliefs all these years and who could be downright indignant at times.  But he spent his life going out of his way to help people, and he made things a lot easier on his grandchildren than they ever should have been in a town that has floated in poverty and squalor since long before I was born.

And even though I've watched his health decline to the point where walking is a chore to be undertaken as little as possible and his voice is barely more than a whisper on his best of days, I've mostly been too busy to stop and talk to him.  Partly it's due to his voice and my slightly declining hearing combining to make conversation difficult; but, mostly, it's because I have "better" things to do or I can't figure out what to say.

Last weekend, I figured out what to say: "Tell me anything, because I love you, you deserve to be heard, and you have commanded my respect from decades of teaching me through your words and your actions."

We fail to realize that our older people -- be they family, friends, co-workers or the sweet old lady who, by nothing short of the miraculous hand of God, got into our cab and asked us to drive them anywhere -- hold in their hearts and minds an unfathomable collection of lessons and experiences that could make our own lives so much better and so much easier if we would only stop to listen and to heed their words and to give them the chance to tell someone what the heck was on their mind in a world where no one wants to let them speak.  It's downright criminal how we treat the elderly -- our own parents and grandparents!

We ought, as a collective world, to be ashamed of ourselves.  We don't even try to find time for them when we should be making time for them!  If there was a way for me to physically yell that through a computer screen, I would.  And I would keep yelling it, until every person on the cusp of departing this world after decades of toiling along through it has had their chance to speak, to be heard and to be treated with the dignity they deserve!

My crimes against the elderly don't stop there, either.  I've spoken to my paternal grandparents less than a handful of times in the last twelve years since I last saw them.  The amount of wrong that I cannot go back in time and right astounds and appalls me.  To think that I have left people who have done nothing but love me stuck in forced silence has finally started to rattle me to my core.  I've finally allowed God to show me my wrongs, and they are horrific.

This Christmas, when I am visiting my grandfather next, I'm going to actually visit with him.  I'm not going to say hello, goodbye, and maybe mutter a few words in passing in between as I've done for a decade or more.  I've already told him that, if his health permits, we are going to get into my car, and I am going to drive him wherever he wants to go and let him drive the conversation -- whether he wants to talk, or wants to listen.  I have precious little time to repay my grandfather for all the lessons he taught me, and I am sure I could work at it every second of every day until he is gone and barely scratch the surface.

I only hope I'll have the chance to start before God calls him home.  Don't miss your chance to do the same.


  1. Great blog, Mike. I hope you get that time with your grandfather.