Our Culture, Disability, and Ageism

Our culture disproportionately values the young and healthy. In general, the lives of those who are elderly are not deemed to be as important as those of younger individuals. Going to school, establishing a career, and raising a family are considered to be the most important activities, the ones that comprise the truly vital years of one’s life.

How does a retired individual derive a sense of worth and value, with such a pervasive, but terribly limited, perspective? Furthermore, how does someone with a disability feel valuable and worthwhile in a culture that disproportionately emphasizes the capacity for paid employment?

As a clinical health psychologist, I’ve spent many years working with the elderly. The majority of this has been working in nursing home settings. For many years, I performed comprehensive neuropsychological assessments, to determine seniors’ ranges of cognitive capacities and limitations.

I also provided individual supportive psychotherapy sessions for geriatric residents. I really learned a lot from interacting with those residents. I came to appreciate that the men and women with whom I was meeting had decades of wisdom and experiences to share.

You need only a willingness to look beyond the surface of their wrinkled faces and grey hairs, with an genuine interest in hearing their personal stories, to gain priceless insights and wisdom.

One particular comment, made by the eldest female resident in the facility where I was working, particularly stands out in my memory. At the start of our session, I asked her how she was doing. With zero enthusiasm, she remarked, “I’m waiting until the next feeding.”

My heart simply sank upon hearing her utter those words. I desperately wanted this woman to experience an improved quality of life, despite her advanced years and reduced capacities.

Our youth-obsessed society needs to do a much better job of helping all individuals to feel that their lives actually do matter, regardless of how many birthdays they may have celebrated.

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