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How television affects elderly caregiving experiences

by Isabel Fawcett, SPHR

An individual's health may affect the person's ongoing disposition, emotional and mental health and physical stamina. Similarly, chronically ill elders have various (additional) external influences not readily apparent to their paid and unpaid caregivers. Absent valid scientific studies and compelling research on how television (TV) programming, content and/or extended viewing may (or may not) affect some seniors, caregivers may want to remain observant for reasonable clues related to our elders' television viewing habits.

Therapeutic Elder Activities

The correlation of art, pet therapy and music in eldercare is socially visible, researched and widely discussed. By contrast, the possible influences of chronically ill elders' television viewing and corresponding auditory stimulation are nearly invisible.

Some paid and unpaid caregivers comfortably use television as an eldercare sitter, comparable to how some parents allow children to view television for hours watching just about anything that may be remote-accessible to children. Most children are learning - something - as they sit transfixed by televised programming, including audio. Many elders also enjoy the learning and/or entertainment value of television.

Among some Baby Boomers and elderly individuals, there is a growing sense of no value added to their lives by modern (circa 2009 - 2011) television programs or content. Social trends, including television viewership rises, falls, and occasionally plateaus.

Television, audio, and elders

For some elders who may be increasingly hard of hearing, a caregiver or elder reasonably may raise the TV volume to better hear a show on television. The higher adjusted TV volume may be just right for a particular elder's needs - while the show actually airs. Enter the default media company's escalation of volume for its fast-moving televised commercial content. What happens when an elderly viewer has not made the cognitive transition to TV commercial interruptions with the same warp speed as the media company airing the commercial? Enter elder cognitive confusion.

In 2008, and for a good part of 2009, my mother kept referring to two prominent elected officials as ""the preachers."" Mom wasn't being funny. She thought they were preachers, based on the protracted televised political campaign news coverage.

Please correct me if I am wrong

Even if I am wrong, though, I personally have seen and heard the TV-show-turned-string-of-commercials scenario happen to more than a few elderly individuals over the years. A few of the elders of whom I speak, had the presence of mind to verbally share with me that the rapid-fire succession of images and escalating audio makes those elders lightheaded, or sometimes unsure of what the elder may be viewing, or what is going on [in the show] the elder thinks he or she [may] be viewing.

Then, what?

Enter elders' cognitive confusion, that's what! When I view limited televised content with my mother, I fulfill the role of voice-over when commercials start firing away, by saying, ""It's JUST a commercial. They're acting, trying to sell something, and counting on the sucker that's born every minute to buy whatever they're selling."" More often, I mute the TV the second there's a break in the programming of choice, to signal to my mother that we are free as the wind from confusing commercial content that fails to boldly announce or print, ""We now interrupt your show to bring you a word from paid sponsors.""

Redundancy: Is that the world of news programming? Maybe to an elder somewhere, it is.

Think about it from an elder's perspective, not a boomer's or other younger generation's. Imagine a nightly lineup of news programming watched for four hours +/- where the auditory stream is gloom and doom, assigning blame at every turn for just about everything, as a chronically ill elder sits staring, increasingly wide-eyed. Daytime natural light fades, sometimes replaced by indoor artificial light, with limited periods of silence, serenity, time for reflection and reduced human interaction.

Modulated speech is more an elder's style and speed

Years ago, when I first noticed the almost breathlessly accelerated rate of speech used by an increasing number of news reporters, I thought it odd, though mildly amusing. As the sensationalism in news reporting escalated to cover raging hurricanes with reporters barely standing in the eye of the storm, news reporters' decibels started breaking sound barrier records. As an observer of increasingly erratic contemporary media communication speech developments, I am not alone.

As I drove in my car earlier this week I listened to a local talk radio show. I laughed aloud when the radio host punctuated his critique of a well-known 'investigative news reporter' by saying, ""The only thing I want to know is, WHY IS HE SHOUTING? Doesn't he know we can all hear him?""

WHY IS (S)HE SHOUTING, indeed? I also want to know where the fire in the news room is, when so many news reporters and pundits rattle off a stream of unintelligible words that remind me of rap musician streams in terms of lacking auditory clarity, speech modulation, pacing and non-frenzied articulation. Among my offline and online circles, TV news reporting's running, rambling, and breathlessness has long since been an inside boomer joke.

Quirky though it may be for a boomer who increasingly pulls away from televised content, for some elders our brave new world of soundbyte speech and warp-speed flashing images in media creates cognitive and emotional dissonance to some of our elders. The same elders taught their boomer children how to articulate and enunciate for greater clarity and allow others time to respond.

I am honored that a few elders over the years have confided their increasing feelings of distance from the relentless dissonance of TV content. I reassure them that they are not hallucinating. Not only has the TV plot thickened, the manner of speech has long since been a wild horse.

Achieving greater balance in caregiving days

My carer's front-line perspective ensures that part of my octogenarian mother's care days include a daily drive to nowhere to see what we can see. We talk, laugh, and sing as we enjoy our quality drive together. Occasionally kind strangers strike up a conversation with Mom while we're out and about on those daily drives to nowhere.

Sometimes Mom watches the steady stream of humanity to Netflix automated movie machines, which allows me to share about the brave new world of movies and CD rentals. That's a lot of information for a former VCR queen.

There are many advantages in seeking a balanced eldercare day.

  1. Mom and I have an active conversation going throughout the day and our drives. Conversation allows periods of silence, laughter and reflection.
  2. There is ample time for an elder to visually and auditorily process more, rather than less, of what all is taking place. The care pace helps minimize feelings of social isolation for an elder who may become confused about little things that could otherwise seem or sound strange.
  3. The ongoing volume of life is livable, not shouted, screeched, fast-forwarded, fine-printed and unreadable, or arbitrarily amplified. Life is far more livable than television content would have some elders believe.
  4. Everyday folks don't dress the way some folks on television dress, or conduct themselves in such ways, thank goodness. There is far less gratuitous profanity, recurring anxiety-producing bleeps and violence on the streets where the rubber meets the road.

We interrupt this television programming eldercare discussion - until further notice to our kind, gentle caregiving readership.

The list of advantages is non-inclusive. Caring at home is a shared journey, not an elder couch potato end-of-life transition, medical counseling or no counseling. I have informal thoughts for media companies and innovative businesses if interested in this sensitive eldercare and 76 million strong aging Baby Boomers social phenomenon.

Perhaps, unlike our mostly stoic elders, some boomers simply will opt-out of television, at the rate we're going? If that were to happen, media revenues would be affected. That's one deep social pocketbook. That may, or, may not be a whole other nouveau eldercare advocacy article. Until then, stay tuned, though not exclusivly to television and its dissonance.

Think mental and emotional health, serenity and peaceful thoughts.