Over the past decade I have read a great deal of material, both scholarly and anecdotally, on how our society views caregiving and the elderly. As a former caregiver and someone who has tried to advocate on behalf of caregivers, I have publicly shared some of my personal experiences and participated in some very interesting discussions. As a result, I have drawn the following conclusions about how our society views the elderly and elder caregivers and why advocating on their behalf is so difficult.
In a very general sense, our society’s views on the elderly range from pity to indifference to contempt. While organizations like AARP and a few others have tried to paint a new picture of aging by showing profiles of famous and/or successful Baby Boomers as they turn 50 that has done little to change society’s overall view and the value placed on the lives of the elderly who find themselves needing care in their final years of live.
In a society which values youth, beauty, intelligence and wealth above all else, there is little empathy for the older, no longer attractive, personal whose cognitive capabilities have diminished and finances have dwindled. In fact, in the eyes of the legal system, because these people have no future earning potential, they lost their value and consequently their right to to legal representation.
As a cause, eldercare is not “sexy” and doesn’t make for great photo ops. Pictures of Alzheimer’s or dementia patients just aren’t as adorable as stray animals or sick children. While so many of us in this group truly care about our fellow caregivers and their loved ones, it’s hard to make the general public care about a wrinkled, drooling, and not always cheerful person. Due to the natural hormonal changes that accompany aging, old men are often no longer the picture of male virility and old women (sans make-up) often begin to look more like old men. : )
Those of us who care for sick and elderly loved ones often find ourselves so obsessed with their care that we forsake the trappings of make-up and dressing up and often find ourselves perpetually feeling tired, sad and prematurely aging. Caregivers also often find themselves feeling socially isolated. After all, what to you say to people when they ask, “so how was your day”? Stories about going to the doctor’s office, cleaning up after accidents, and trying to get a loved one to sleep/eat/take medicine does not make good dinner party or date night conversation. Stories about feeding mom and dad are not met with the same “OOOs” and “Aaahs” as stories about feeding a baby. Think about it. When you take your elderly loved one to church, no one rushes over asking if they can hold them. And certainly no one, not even other family members, offers to give them a bath or change their diapers. Christmas in Connecticut moments only happen with babies. LOL. So don’t wait for people to rush over and help you push Mom or Dad’s wheelchair : )
While I have been able to temper the truth with humor, the indifference to the sick and elderly, many of whom made valuable contributions to society during their lives, as well as their caregivers, is no laughing matter.
Forbes wrote an article on how proposals for amendments to the Family Leave Act failed to address the needs of caregivers for the elderly. I wish that I could say that I was surprised, but I was not. Nor was I particularly disappointed, because I had no expectations that these issues would be addressed in the near future. Eldercare simply isn’t the cause celebre. For now, the focus is on finding “fountains of youth” and cures for the ravaging diseases that steal youth, beauty, and brain function. However, until those cures are found, Americans will continue to age, some will get sick, and some family member (probably a female member) will need to decide how to care for Mom or Dad.
Will the next generation of women give up their careers and jeopardize their future financial security to care for Mom and Dad?
Will paid caregivers continue to work physically and emotionally draining hours for minimum wage?
Will our society place a greater value on all human life in the decades ahead?
These are the questions that caregivers and caregiving advocates are asking. For now the response has been indifference.