My full-time “day job” is working in a nursing home. Although I don’t have a clinical role in the nursing home, I do have interactions with the residents regularly. In interacting with the residents and their families, I have watched many of the good things that occur with aging along with the not so good. One thing I see a lot of are residents, who, as they age and dementia or Alzheimer’s set in, tend to revert back to child-like behaviors. This has become something that has made these residents so endearing to me.
Many of the elderly I see on a regular basis are toddlers and five year olds trapped in an old person’s body.
From this, I have learned a lot and have questioned a lot. When people start to find that they are nearing the dying process, their priorities change. I have yet to encounter an individual on his or her death bed who wishes they had worked more hours and spent less time with their families, for example.
As these folks age, their sense of self-censorship diminishes. As we grow from toddlers into adults, we are taught that it is not polite to stare, we should not be rude, and sometimes the best thing to do is to keep our mouths shut in order to avoid embarrassing someone else. With the very young and the elderly, many of these filters do not exist. While many adults will sit quietly and politely while someone gives a speech that is barely audible to an audience, a toddler and many of the elderly population I see in the nursing home will interrupt the speaker to shout at them that no one can hear what they are saying. If an individual sits next to either of these populations of individuals and has a powerful odor, both populations are likely to speak up and make sure the smelly person is well aware of their funk.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Yes, while it is entirely possible that making such statements might be embarrassing to the individual on the receiving end, is it a bad thing to bring these things to their attention? Perhaps the individual giving the speech strongly believes he or she is speaking loudly enough for the person in the last row to hear, when in reality, many of the people in the front row cannot hear them. Letting this person know he or she is speaking too softly lets the individual know that they need to speak more loudly. Likewise, if a smelly individual is not told he or she smells, the individual may carry on through life thinking there is nothing wrong, and always wondering why so many people seem to have an aversion to them.
When someone clearly is afflicted with dementia or Alzheimer’s, these individuals are often given a “free pass” to behave however they choose. He or she does not know any better, we tell ourselves and others. This person is quirky or unique or downright hysterical. While, if the same statement is made by someone who is in their fifties or early sixties, for example, with no obvious rationalization deficiencies, we label these people as jerks or bitches. When someone who should still have all of their faculties about them makes similar comments, these statements are not cute or funny. These statements are just mean and inappropriate and uncalled for.
Why is it that as we mature from childhood into adulthood, we’re conditioned to believe we must censor our thoughts and feelings, remain quiet about our needs in certain situations, and we’re conditioned to leave certain characteristics and pastimes in our past. It is not very common to see a forty year old enjoying a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch unless one of their children prepared it for them. Likewise, that same forty year old individual rarely will be seen playing hopscotch, or building a snowman, or skipping through a park unless accompanied by a child. Why is it socially unacceptable to engage in these activities without a child by our side once we become adults?
I don’t know about anyone reading this, but I know that in my own life, the few folks I come across in life who are able to remain a bit child-like at heart and who can still enjoy peanut butter sandwiches and skipping through the park, who are not fearful that it might appear inappropriate to the outside world certainly give the outward appearance of being the happiest individuals. While I am sure these individuals have problems just like the rest of the world and perhaps they worry about getting their bills paid just as much as I do, their overall spirit and demeanor seem so much more carefree.
Having children has forced me to “stay young” (as some would like to say). If I didn’t have a nineteen year old step-daughter newly out on her own in the world, I would have forgotten how challenging it is to learn how to juggle working and friends and whether or not I can afford brand name potato chips or the store brand at the grocery store. If I didn’t have a daughter in high school who participates in marching band, I probably wouldn’t attend any high school football games. If I didn’t have a ten year old who has entered her “tweens” and gets humorously mortified if I hug her in public or kiss my husband in front of her, I might not be as openly affectionate as I often am. And I guarantee that if I didn’t have a daughter just a couple weeks shy of her first birthday, I wouldn’t sing childhood songs like the “A,B,C’s”, “Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes” or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and I wouldn’t be blowing raspberries on anyone’s bare tummy for the sole reward of a melodious giggle.
My children have made me a better person and the residents in the nursing home where I work have helped me to keep perspective and appreciate life. When I’m at a department or grocery store and I come across an elderly individual who is outspoken about what is on their mind, I can’t help but smile and say to myself, “I hope that’s me when I get to be that age!”