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Elder-branding: people should not be defined by labels

by Isabel Fawcett

Even as longevity rates in America have increased with more adults living into their 90's, there has been an almost-exclusive spotlight on elders based on commonly experienced symptoms of physical and/or mental decline. Society's elder-branding can be disconcerting to older care recipients and their caregivers. Branding elders as a group based on chronic disease inadvertently reinforces social isolation experienced by caregivers and our loved ones.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, with advanced age, 80 percent of older adults have at least one chronic health condition and 50 percent of elders have at least two such conditions which cause reduced functioning in elders.

How a person ages is affected by a number of factors including genetic makeup, social and economic status. Even with advanced age, however, there are many elders who enjoy good health and active lifestyles. All the more reason to avoid branding all elders as being chronically ill or disabled.

Social Branding of Elders

Culturally speaking, describing elders as a single group prone to certain chronic diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's is the source of comedic fodder. Mocking chronically ill elders' speech, manner of chewing, straining to see or hearing impairment experienced by some older adults is commonplace social humor and the topic of some informal conversations.

Elders and Chronic Illness

I become annoyed when older individuals are reduced to jokes in conversations focused on perceived medical symptoms or chronic illnesses. When I see my octogenarian mother her medical symptoms are not the first thing on my mind. I see Mom's smile and hear her laughter.

My mother is a breast cancer survivor. Looking at my mother's face reminds me of her lifetime strength of spirit in face of life's greatest challenges. Her cancer survival of more than 10 years also reminds me of a poem.

"Cancer is so limited that:

It cannot cripple love
It cannot shatter hope
It cannot corrode faith
It cannot destroy peace
It cannot kill friendship
It cannot suppress memories
It cannot silence courage
It cannot invade the soul
It cannot steal eternal life
It cannot conquer the spirit."

~Anonymous

Growing old is consistent with individual survival in spite of so many life challenges, not limited to cancer survival.

Elder Care: Doctors Treat Individuals

When Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer she heard and intellectually understood her radiology diagnosis. Her non-verbals in her oncologist's office said it all. Mid-conversation, she became withdrawn, then silent. After a brief and comfortable period of silence, Mom's oncologist spoke. He asked whether she had any questions. Mom was speechless. I started asking questions for her to give her emotional space.

The oncologist answered every question as if she were his only patient in the world. She thanked him and reverted to sad silence. He asked Mom whether she was worried. "Talk to me…." the doctor said. She faltered in her reply. "Well…yes…I…guess… I am…a little bit worried, doctor."

Without skipping a beat or losing his professionally confident smile the oncologist said: "Mrs. Fawcett. Listen. You are my patient. If anyone needs to worry, it is me, not you. I am your doctor and I am not worried about the big job ahead of me. If I am not worried, then you don't need to worry, right? You concentrate on getting well. Can you do that?"

Those were the words she needed to hear from her respected and trusted physician. She smiled and repeated what she thought she heard her oncologist say. We both walked away from the oncology clinic leaving behind any medical and surgical worries to her doctor.

Even though the doctor could have continued with a litany of medical, surgical and oncology jargon, he skillfully re-directed his focus away from explaining how cancer destroys healthy cells, the side effects of radiation, reconstructive surgery options and other technical information. The physician focused on the individual before him, not on the chronic illness.

In 10+ years of required follow-up oncology medical appointments with the same physician, she repeatedly thanks her doctor for what he did for his encouragement during her very first oncology appointment. Each time she thanks him it's as if she is thanking him for the very first time. She always tears up, and so do I.

Elder Care: Encouragement Not Labels

The oncologist's intervention is a best care practice and puts chronic diseases into proper perspective. Regardless of age or propensity to chronic illness as one ages, the care recipient remains an individual. Mom's oncologist encouraged his patient to not allow a cancer diagnosis to define her.

Elder-branding need not be status quo unless reinforced by caregivers. Reasonable individuals count on social visibility while life may last. Elders are individuals. Age is but a number. When all is said and done, chronic disease is so limited.