In the UK we are wonderfully good at valuing children and animals. Yes, there are isolated cases of cruelty and abandonment, but the vast majority show huge compassion towards the young, putting children at the centre of so much in society, and lavish copious amounts of love and dedication towards the animals we invite into our homes and share our lives with.
Which makes it all the more baffling that so many do not extend those same feelings of caring and nurturing towards our older people. It has been said that when an older person dies it is as if a library has burnt down. Yet that library, that unique contribution that the older generation can make to our society, isn’t valued, tapped into or appreciated anywhere near enough while they are alive.
When the library becomes more muddled, the books are put back into places they weren’t previously, or aren’t put back at all, and the knowledge can no longer get out in the way that it used to, the perception is often that the person is worth even less. They are easy to ignore or if we do recognise them they are often treated inappropriately. We do not support their independence enough, we do not encourage them to lead full, active and meaningful lives for as long as possible, we do not consider their feelings enough, we do not do enough to preserve their dignity or show them respect, and ultimately they are considered by many to be just one great big burden that is not wanted.
In our vacuous society that values appearance over pretty much every other quality, children are far prettier than older people; consequently society loves their youthful enthusiasm and naivety. Children can ask the same question ten times and adults accept their inquisitive nature, while older people with their endless stories (often repeated) are an endurance, and their more considered, slower movements remind their younger counterparts of the inevitable passage of time and the conclusion of life.
We do value some older people however. The Queen, for example, is clearly held in very high regard: no one thinks her contribution is any less valid now that she is 86. At the Jubilee Concert it could be argued that the older performers were given more prominence than many of the younger ones, and arguably their contribution had more gravitas, quality and popularity.
My appreciation for my ‘elders and betters’ as my dad would have put it, is partly from my upbringing, partly from my love of learning about days gone by, and partly from having had the most inspiring experiences in my life with people who were around a long time before I was, most notably my dad, even during his dementia. When his library was slowly shutting down, it was the discovery of the odd rare edition tome of knowledge amongst the jumble that made every previously unfathomable plot worthwhile.
Judging a person by their age, in a way that you wouldn’t because of their skin colour or sexuality, means you miss the fundamental joy of life. Those that were here before us had experiences we will never have, learnt things we really need to learn, and made their mark in the world that nothing can erase, including dementia. Their life’s work makes our world what it is, and our cognitive ability can more than make up for any deficiencies they may be experiencing if we treat every day like a walk in their shoes.
No one wants to feel unloved and no longer needed. No one need ever feel like that in a compassionate society that values all of its citizens. Our affection and care for our ‘elders and betters’, those with terminal illnesses, those who need our help and support, kindness and understanding is what puts the Great into Great Britain. Establish that attitude at the centre of dementia friendly communities and we will be getting somewhere.
Until next time…