Recently we’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of empathy in the context of treatment of our oldest old.
On the odd occasion that younger people with disabilities have been placed in the same care facilities as seniors, with no say in what they eat or when they eat it, what activities are available for their participation or even what they watch on TV, there has been outrage. And rightly so. Which adult wouldn’t be annoyed at being treated as if they are three years old by someone who could be half their age, at least?
So why is it that this level of treatment is considered an outrage for younger people with disabilities, when it is often the only care available to seniors.
In fact, (and with great thanks to Karen Hitchcock, writer of Quarterly Essay Dear Life, for so eloquently pointing this out) why is it that treating our seniors as if they are toddlers so often derives from them being pigeonholed as either cute, difficult or mute?
‘It’s easy to be cute: just say something any normal human might say. Because you are ancient, it will be seen as cute. If you want the best treatment and don’t give a damn whom you piss off, be difficult. It’s not hard to be difficult: simply respond as one should when a 25-year-old speaks to you as if you are three. Alternatively, request that you get your bedpan within half an hour and that your tea be hot…
Perhaps you might as well be mute. You’re in an anonymous white gown, in a strange bed, your hair is grey, your facial features are desiccated. Who the hell knows who you are? You are old. Enough said.’
If we tried hard enough to find out about how an older person was feeling, as a result of their personal circumstances and history, we would know how they wish to be treated. True empathy is not born out of knowledge of somebody’s age. It derives from a natural curiosity about the person, from really getting to know their past, their preferences and their current circumstances.