Innovations in Elder Care Demand a Different Paradigm
Posted by Plish on March 5, 2010
I’d like to have a spirited word or two with the person who popularized the concept that as adults get older they become children while their children become the parents.
This concept has warped elder care and hurt the cause of innovation in hospitals, nursing and rehab facilities around the country (and perhaps the world) as it is a classically misapplied case of: If A=B, and C=B, then A=C.
In other words:
Elderly people need help to bathe, use the bathroom, dress, or eat. Young children need help to bathe, use the bathroom, dress, or eat. Therefore Elderly = Children, and they should be treated as such.
A recent shocking study pointed out that speaking to elderly people like children actually took years off their lives!
This problem exists not only in the speech of caregivers but in the systems that are supposed to bring elderly back into society. Take, for example, elderly going through rehab therapy. The elderly individual, who perhaps only weeks earlier had made a meal for the family or gone hunting in the woods, is required to manipulate and stack plastic colored building blocks or pieces of felt into certain patterns. When that task is completed they’re congratulated with glee as if it was the first time this person ever accomplished that task. “That was great sweetie!! Now try this one!”
Or take the elderly woman who painted and scanned a modern Christmas card design on a computer only 6 months prior, and was given a ‘paint-by-number’ task at a rehab facility. For an elderly person who had never painted before this might be a significant accomplishment, but for this artist, it was a reminder of the frailty of the human person.
While physical attributes were perhaps improved through therapy, in neither case was the elderly person elevated and treated with respect. The system, although it had the best of intentions, did not treat the entire person and in fact may actually have contributed to future morbidity.
To innovatively change and design healthcare systems for the elderly there needs to be a change of perspective and greater empathy – empathy on the parts of nurses, doctors, therapists, and family members.
Being elderly and being cared for is not the same as being a child being cared for. It is an entirely different experience that demands better techniques and communication modalities that account for the fact that the elderly person is a living history, a person who simply can not do all the things they could do. That is essentially different from working with children who never knew they could do something.
It is a simple, powerful, painful difference.
In one case there is the memory of a task, in the other there is rejoicing in new found potential. The latter is decidingly easier to empathize with and perhaps that is why too many people opt for this perspective and treat the elderly like children.
The former is painful and more difficult to empathize with, perhaps because it is what awaits us all in some way.
But, if we make the brave jump to truly empathize with the elderly, we rest assured that the innovations we bring to the table will not only improve the lives of those who are currently treated like children, but will one day make our lives better and allow us to experience, and live with, respect and dignity.