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Elders, caregivers, and social invisibility

by Isabel Fawcett

If caregivers are socially invisible, the plight of elders is worse. Many elders have lived full and productive lives and deserve greater respect. Caregivers can help increase elder dignity and respect in society by remaining vigilant.

It has been less than three decades since elders went from socially revered to invisible. In my youth, elders shared stories with younger generations including neighbors. Back then, many elders commanded respect at first sight.

When my childhood friend's grandparent spoke, it did not matter that he exhibited mild cognitive impairment. He was a respected community elder. We knew he wandered too far away from my friend's home where he lived with his adult son and extended family. It didn't matter. He was one of us. Whenever "Mr. Grandfather" took walks, he greeted others with a smile and kind words. Others reciprocated his greeting. What a difference several decades make.

With extended families going separate ways and no longer living under one roof, elders became more isolated than ever. Small towns became larger towns--sometimes suburbs of large cities. Along the way, elders were abandoned in society's musical chairs.

Elders and Social Isolation

With the emergence of nuclear families and single parent households, some grandparents now live hundreds of miles away. Seniors-only communities multiplied across the US after record successes in Florida and Arizona originally. The social-isolation-by-age dye has been cast.

Imagine living in the same house, on the same street for 50 years, not recognizing anyone or anything familiar. Such is the isolation experienced by many elders in society. As elder isolation goes, so does elder invisibility.

Elders and Social Shadows

My caregiver's blood boils when my octogenarian mother speaks and the listener, usually a younger person, makes no effort to actively engage in what she is trying to share. Now that she is older and has chronic illnesses, including respiratory issues, her voice is softer.

Social indifference is not limited to my caregiving circumstances. It is replayed in society daily. Elders are regularly overlooked when speaking or trying to speak. If an elder speaks slowly, there are those who may simply speak over the elder's words and voice. Even if age were not a factor, speaking over another person is socially rude. Why would elders be exempt from commonplace social etiquette? My caregiving experience has been that some medical assistants and retail personnel are among the worst offenders.

Patient Invisibility

On the day my father died in the intensive care unit, he had been in a coma for most of that day. I sat next to his ICU bed crying silently, praying for him to come out of his coma. When a phlebotomist walked in to draw his blood, we exchanged hellos. As the phlebotomist started drawing blood, my father opened his eyes, coughed an agonizing cough and looked at the phlebotomist. He started speaking to the technician. The phlebotomist's blood drawing task ended, he started walking away to complete his technician rounds.

He then lifted his upper body from his ICU bed, still looking intently at the phlebotomist, speaking through heavy chest congestion. The phlebotomist said nothing to my father as his back turned to walk away.

I quickly stood and said to the technician's back, "Did you hear what my Dad just told you?"

The technician was honest in saying that he had not understood.

Proudly, I placed my hand on Dad's arm and repeated what Dad said: "He said he wants to thank you, and everyone here, for everything you all have done for him. He said everyone has been very kind to him."

Only then did the phlebotomist look into Dad's eyes. He thanked my father, and told my father that he had been a good patient before walking away. Dad coughed, closed his eyes, and went back into a coma. He died that night without ever regaining consciousness.

I will always be grateful the opportunity to communicate for him, especially on his deathbed.

Advocates Needed to Increase Elder Visibility

Look for elder (voice) advocacy opportunities daily.

  1. Don't allow others to speak over elders. I say, "Mom is not finished speaking [or telling you] what she wants to share."
  2. Ask an elder what he, or, she thinks. Listen and acknowledge. Elders follow observable routines, including speech.
  3. Help convey meaning. My mother sometimes says to me, "You know what I am trying to say…" when she is temporarily stuck for a word(s.) I help convey what she is trying to communicate. Sometimes I ask clarifying questions to help her better express her thoughts. She answers giving me lots of helpful clues. Caregiver patience goes a long way in alleviating elder invisibility.

When babies babble before they can speak, most people stand in awe, actively listening to the infant's unintelligible sounds. Yet when our elders speak society overlooks them, or worse.

How do you ensure that our elder's voices are heard?