I am a Licensed Social Worker; I have extensive geriatric experience. My parents were older when they adopted me; they stayed youthful until they died. Though my mom lived to be a member of the “frail elderly,” she maintained a youthful exuberance that I loved and will miss until the day I die.
As a geriatrics social worker in a nursing home I was exposed to various strata of the elderly. When I say that I am haunted by dementia, I am as I was exposed to every type of dementia there is, including reversible dementia which is probably the saddest and not part of the following story.
The story is about an elderly alcoholic who abused his elderly wife on home visits. She lived in the nursing home. As my mom was becoming frailer and frailer, and I lived in a building in Riverdale that had more older people than younger people, I wasn’t filtered from the problems of the aging. My mom lived in a NORC (naturally occurring retirement community) on an 18 hole golf course on the Queens/Nassau border.
She lived very well, and I love the Towers, but hanging out with some of my mom’s neighbors could be very depressing. I’m not ashamed to say that I almost clung to my friends. Well as much as I’m capable of; I’m not very clingy.
If Newt’s Contract with America cuts hadn’t kicked in there would have been four social workers on staff and four students; rather than three a half social workers and three and a half students, with me making up both halves. To say that half of me was a student would be dramatically overstating it. Neither academics nor the work in my field placement was a challenge. The challenge was in being around people who had few visitors; who had little life left in them. No, I could be around them; I could spend the night if they were dying. I could hang out with very demented people, listen to them, and they would make me laugh or I would make them laugh.
Did get tired of making up buses that were delayed and couldn’t take them home to their mothers. Had to keep on changing the story of why the bus couldn’t come to the top of the hill. Yes I resorted to that. There comes a time when all the reality orientation in the world won’t work.
The problem wasn’t with them; it was with me. I wanted to do something that I wasn’t cut out for. Problem was that I was good at my job so nobody was going to tell me to leave, or to find another area of social work. I’m good at covering emotions in person so nobody realized how miserable I was. I spent a lot of money for the privilege of working.
Graduate school was my present to myself. I really wanted a degree in sociology, public administration or counseling, but did social work since it was licensed seemed the most practical. Big big mistake.
I find it sad that I was thrust into a role that I was ready for work wise, but not ready for emotionally. I needed that time to become more used to the environment or to decide whether to go into another aspect of social work.
And yes, I will never understand why many people so readily condone drunk behavior. Somehow they more easily condone it in the elderly. Driving drunk is never cute. I took keys from my friends when they were 30, and they did thank me in the morning. Not that I didn’t drink; I lived in Manhattan, and have never driven.
No I don’t believe that the man in the story is typical at all of the elderly. I don’t believe that there is one behavior or a set of behaviors typical of the elderly. Each person is an individual as he/she was when young, in mid life, and in early old age. When I talk about reality orientation not working I mean that by going along with the fantasy you learn much more about the person and who she once was.
And yes, I made up buses not coming because sometimes being illogical is the only logical solution. There were days when I felt privileged to learn so much about a woman’s early life simply because I listened, asked a few questions, and laughed in all the right places.
But sometimes at night I would feel haunted. There is so little that I know about my own biological DNA background. Maybe it’s easier for people who aren’t adopted; maybe if I knew how old both my grandmothers were when they died and what exactly did they die of…maybe if I knew what my birth parents had really been like. But I don’t.
There’s no gift more precious than knowledge. Know everything that you can about your family, and consider yourself blessed if you can ask. My parents were wonderful, and there was so many similarities between my parents and I. But we didn’t share the same DNA, and we all know how important that is now. Back to old age…
I don’t believe that there is anything cute about old age. Drives me nuts when people say:
“Old people are so cute.”
So are chimpanzees. Old people are people.
Was going to say I never joke about dementia. Of course I do as my friends teenagers joke about finding the cheapest nursing homes. And yes it is funny. But there is never anything funny about abuse.
While I will joke about dementia, I will never find it cute. I don’t believe that it is a “second childhood.” The person has lived an entire life; you don’t know what residual memories they have left. Even if there are none, an old (and I use that word on purpose) demented person was once somebodies child, sibling, spouse, best friend, might have a child, grandchildren and more, had a job, a life.
Each old person has a story and that story deserves telling and deserves to be remembered. Yes all the people who have debated my moral/values called it right but for such wrong reasons.
I don’t need a child to make me feel whole or to make me feel that I have left my mark on the world. I like most people want to be remembered; I want my friends and family to enjoy their memories of me. I want them to tell funny stories and laugh while they remember me. Just for a generation or two.
When I worked at the nursing home, and after, when my mom died a month after 9/11, I faced my demons and my fears. There are many very dedicated nursing home employees who I admire. There are others who have hardened themselves and I admire them also. They can generally do a better job as they are more removed.
For whatever reasons I was unable to become removed from my work. Therefore I had to face the fact that I would be very ineffectual, or effective but very depressed. Selfishly I choose not to be depressed. As almost anything pays better than social work….
That’s another thing. I graduated from grad school in 1996. Liberal Art’s majors just out of college were commanding 40k; me, with 20 years work experience and a masters, 35K at the most. Social Work salaries had actually gone down. If I hadn’t been depressed before that realization…
I’m just not that noble. I’m really not.