Never has the idea that a picture can tell a thousand stories been more true than when it comes to caring for our older people, particularly those with severe physical or mental health problems.
I have written previously about my dad’s memory box, all the photos contained therein and the many other boxes that were posted around dad’s care home, each one divulging so much about the person whose photos and memorabilia appeared within that small wooden cabinet. They all showed a life lived with love and laughter, achievements, fashions and ultimately the passage of time.
When you are creating something like that you tend to look for images that convey as much about a person as possible. I found the same was true when I was looking for photos to go onto the order of service for dad’s funeral. In the end I picked a photo of dad looking incredibly smart, slim, vibrant and happy on his wedding day to my mother for the front, while for the back, some fun promotional pictures dad had done as a very young man in his early 20’s when he was trying to get work on the stage (yes, he wasn’t your average farmer but a very multitalented man).
In preparation for the wake afterwards I compiled a photo album of images of dad. For the people who came to the funeral, some of whom had never seen dad during his dementia, the early photos in that album showed the man that they remembered. For the carers who came to pay their respects to someone that they had nursed through those last few years, their reaction to the same photos was identical to when they saw dad’s memory box for the first time – “Wow, is that really him? He used to look so handsome.”
Well yes, there is no denying he did. Whilst age was relatively kind to dad in as much as it let him keep a great head of hair and beautifully soft skin, dementia and the illnesses that came along with it meant that he lost a lot of weight and muscle tone, he didn’t have the cognitive ability to learn to wear dentures so eventually ended up with a sunken mouth where his teeth had been, and he came to rely on others to meet all of his personal care needs to keep him looking smart and well groomed.
Older people aren’t viewed as beautiful in the way that younger people are. To many of their youthful counterparts they are seen as a reminder that no matter how much we try and turn back the hands of time, ageing is an uncomfortable fact of life. Many people don’t even see the person behind the wrinkles, dentures (or lack of them), their grey, white or thinning hair, shrunken lips and creased ear lobes – they just see their own mortality.
As people age, we often use their appearance to make judgements about them, their abilities or choices. Those judgements then influence how we treat them, which can lead to negative interactions. If we wanted to we could choose to ignore the wrinkles and the grey hair, and see the sparkle in their eyes or their cheeky smile, and if those qualities aren’t immediately apparent we could interact with them in a way that sees those joyful characteristics appear.
Everything that made someone handsome or attractive in their teens or 20’s doesn’t suddenly vanish after a certain age – it matures, but it is still there. I would argue that if the youth of today feel that our older people are a distasteful reminder of the effects of ageing, fast forward 50 or 60 years and imagine bodies with faded tattoos, piercings and botched cosmetic surgery. Things that young people consider make them more attractive now may provide a very different story in later life, and I suspect they will then be crying out to be seen as the person that they are, rather than the appearance that they exude.
It’s true to say that older people bruise more easily, their skin is more fragile, but I think the bruises we never see but the ones that hurt even more are the feelings of being cast out, ignored, marginalised, isolated and deemed to be stupid, inept, incapable or a waste of time – often purely as a result of judgements made by others just from looking at them. These are the effects of ageing that you never see, but for those experiencing them, they cut deeper than anything their reflection could throw at them.
Imagine a world where we never make judgements about people based on their appearance. My sister already lives in that world. She has been blind since she was six, and because of that she has never judged anyone on how they look. So if someone’s appearance is likely to ever prejudice how you approach them or interact with them, try closing your eyes. By doing that you might just listen harder, learn more and judge less.
Until next time…