Involuntary Invisibility

The Cloak of Invisibility is a magical cloak which provides the wearer with complete invisibility. “And the Cloak . . . the true magic of which, of course, is that it can be used to protect and shield others as well as its owner …Harry Potter

Most everyone has wished for invisibility at one time or another.  Remember the time you used the wrong name when addressing someone important or when you wrote a personal email but inadvertently hit Reply All?  Cringe worthy things like this happen all the time and that invisibility cloak would be a lifesaver.  It would make us feel safe from ridicule and allow us to disappear when things get tough.  Most of our lives, from teen years through careers and family, invisibility cloaks would ease embarrassment and allow us to put life on pause when needed.

On the other hand, being seen has its advantages.  It’s easy to communicate, be a part of a group, work on projects and most of all it allows us to be relevant.   It’s validating to be seen.  Studies show that even during infancy we take pleasure in seeing faces when compared to objects.  All our lives we work hard to be seen and heard and we get upset when we are ignored.

But there is a time limit on being seen.  Aging brings an invisibility cloak all its own, even more so when there is suspected dementia.   It’s involuntary invisibility.  We make older adults invisible which allows us to keep them out of sight so we don’t have to deal with our own mortality.  It’s a shocking truth.  Some people reading this will think, that’s ridiculous, I don’t do that.  Be honest.  Every time we don’t “see” them by talking over them, ignoring and discounting them, they suffer.  Studies are clear that the result of our behavior causes severe damage to our greatest treasure.  Even the words we use around older adults can cause them to withdraw and one study showed they even walk slower with their head lowered because of this.  Pretty graphic.

It happens in an instant and the damage is done.  During a conversation, the elder can be discussed as though they aren’t there.  How demeaning this must be.  You can see the elder retreating into silence and hopelessness as the invisibility cloak closes over them.

Being invisible, once longed for, paradoxically, becomes a handicap.  Why does it happen?   Do be subconsciously think their time of relevance is up?

I think it boils down to how easily we judge the appearance of others and our perception of what that appearance means.  We base perception of others on our history and variables we have learned throughout our lives.  So, if we have learned from society and other influences that older adults don’t know what they are doing, are hard to communicate with, can’t keep up, and are rarely included, it makes sense that we don’t waste our time or brain power embracing them.

It is common in long term care for staff to talk to other staff while caring for a resident without even acknowledging the resident at all.  I can only assume that the resident begins to feel like an object with no inherent value making depression run rampant in elder care.

Medical professionals are just as guilty.  When a younger adult is in the Dr.’s office with an older adult, the staff acknowledges the younger adult and talks with them about treatment rather than discussing it with the elder.  The assumption is that the younger adult wouldn’t be there if the elder could manage things.

You would think houses of faith would never behave in such a way, but in fact, many of them discount involvement of older adults especially after they come home from the hospital or are placed in a rehab facility.  Rarely do you see clergy visit people in nursing homes.  I’ve asked many ministers why that is and they state that there is little time for that and it’s very hard to minister to people there.  I don’t know of a time a person needs their faith more than when they are in long term care.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the news.  They worry about becoming skewed old.  Consequently, the news loves stories about children and success they have when overcoming obstacles.  That’s great but truth be told, the obstacles our elders overcome every day are just as heroic but we rarely hear about those. Don’t get me wrong.  Children are important and we need lots of them to keep Medicare afloat but it’s a bit skewed.

We commonly hear the phrase, children are our future.  It’s a strange phrase to me because our elders are our future, right?  That’s where we are headed.

Children have a future but elders are OUR future.

News coverage is the same for stats relating to suicide.  We hear about the teens and young adults but rarely do we know the rate of suicide in geriatrics.  According to the New York Times, among those over 65, the suicide rate is higher than any other segment of our population.  It is likely that the number is even higher because autopsies are rarely done on older adults and swallowing an overdose of pills will not be noticed.  Also, coroners shy away from stating suicide as the cause of death due to the stigma.  This is cause for societal concern but because it’s older adults, the stats are invisible to most.

Even the gaming industry has thrown the invisibility cloak on older adults.  Take Sim City for example; games that allow the gamer to create a city and to be conscious of the needs that come from every angle to support the city they are developing.  There are schools, hospitals, day care, water systems, etc. but there are no elder care facilities and no mention of care for older adults.  The assumption is that no one gets old.  See how ingrained this is?  People playing this game and others have no idea they are playing a game that supports invisibility and dare I say discrimination of our elders?

I was in a corporate meeting in New York City several years ago.  The room was appointed with some of the most beautiful flower arrangements I had ever seen.  As the meeting was coming to an end, the president of the company asked if there were any questions.  I asked what was going to happen to the flower arrangements in the room.  The response was that they didn’t know and they began getting up from their chairs.  I mentioned that nursing homes in the area would love to have some of them.  Puzzled looks and eye shifting was the corporate look and they said, “There are no nursing homes in Manhattan”.  Hard to believe in a city that size there would be no nursing homes.  I asked if I could check. Without making a kerfuffle any larger than I already had, I told the event planner that there were three nursing homes within a four block radius of 5th Avenue.  About an hour later there was a van being loaded with the arrangements to be delivered to the nursing homes.  Not another word was said but I know the residents thoroughly enjoyed the arrangements even more than the meeting attendees had.

I believe if we all begin to question the status quo when it comes to our aging counterparts, things will change.  That means every one of us takes responsibility for keeping our elders front and center.  If we wait, invisibility is waiting to embrace us too.



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