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Elders are not babies

by Isabel Fawcett

Some individuals treat elders as babies. A caregiver uncovers hidden memories consistent with her mother's history and legacy. If only by virtue of having lived full lives, octogenarians and other elders are not tabula rasa, or clean slate.

William Shakespeare's Hamlet spoke to a universal perception that "an old [man] is twice a child." Some caregivers and others are amused by the universal saying, "Once a man twice a child," commonly said in context of an individual's advancing age, physical and cognitive decline.

Elder Care: Life Cycles

Comparable to changing seasons in a year, human life has seasons of expansion, contraction, and diminishing returns. At birth, infants are wholly dependent on adults for food, shelter, and continuity of care. Some elders who are chronically ill are wholly, or to a large extent dependent on others for similar basic assistance as newborns. There should be no argument there. However, life is far from literal--if only because humanity is involved.

Elder Care: "Tabula Rasa"

As a caregiver, I reject the Aristotelian notion of an elder adult as tabula rasa--the reportedly clean mental or cognitive slate of infancy or early childhood.

For illustrative purposes only, an octogenarian who has lived a full life prior to the onset of chronic medical illness(es), mobility impairment, and/or cognitive decline, retains a lifetime of memories and experiences, albeit hidden to others on occasion. Whether an elder adult's memories fade in and out to caregivers, doctors, and others is irrelevant. Regardless, there remains a cognitive or mental imprint developed in an elder's lifetime.

Elder Care: Hidden Memories Two Generations Strong

My grandmother was a skilled seamstress who taught her daughters, including my mother, the art of sewing. For years, my grandmother and one of my aunts sewed intricate wedding dresses for others. Mom knew how to sew, though by her own admission sewing was never her calling.

In her 70's, one of Mom's volunteer assignments required her to cut and hand-sew heart-shaped pillows for cardiac patients who were hospitalized post-surgery. The heart-shaped pillows provided tactile and physical comfort for cardiac patients when they coughed or sneezed post-surgery.

Now that Mom is 84, hidden memories come to life whenever she naps. On-cue, Mom makes half-circle hand movements in the air, holding her thumb and index fingers together tightly as if holding an invisible needle. The motion is the same as when she sewed heart pillows. Although she no longer volunteers, sewing remains part of her cognition. If she were unable to speak, who am I to say that her memory(ies) would not endure just because I no longer see or hear them?

The first time I saw Mom's sleep activity I thought she was reaching for something. Upon awakening, she mentioned and looked around for her material, her term of art for the fabric she bought to make heart pillows. I finally got it.

Elder Care: Nature Versus Nurture

The debate of nature versus nurture is ancient. Newborns make random hand motions while asleep. Due to undeveloped motor coordination skills, however, newborns do not sew by hand while asleep. There are many reasons for caregivers to steer clear of tabula rasa leaps of elder logic.

I'm reminded of a letter reportedly written by an elder who died in a nursing home: "When you look at me, what do you see?"

I see nurture and nature. No two ways about it.