Infantilizing older adults is not ok.

I have a confession.

It took me about 5 tries filming the video for today before I even came close to feeling comfortable with it.

Unconscious Bias. It’s a tough subject matter to delve into.

And today’s personal reflection is one that has quietly been stirring my thoughts for many years.

It’s about my mother and something that happened in the Assisted Living housing where she lived from her late 80s into her 90s.

Now conversations about my mother are often complicated and complex. This one is particularly challenging for me as I’m struggling to make sense of what I’m thinking, feeling and want to say.

It starts with an implicit bias where we ‘infantilize’ older adults with both the things we expect them to conform to and the words we use to describe them.

In this case, it was a Christmas concert in which my mother played in the Bell Choir.

I was always inspired by her desire to participate and do things creative. In this case, I was inspired by her bell ringing.

What disturbed me then, and still confuses me today is the manner in which the organizers of the concert insisted the performers come on stage.

They dressed all the choir members with reindeer ears, little mittens and then made them prance like reindeer as they came onto stage.

Now, if that had been one of my daughter’s grade 1 classes, I’d have been oohing and cooing about how sweet and cute they all were.

But these were older adults. People who had spent a lifetime maturing into themselves, building histories and stories, families and lives that mattered to them.

It felt disrespectful to treat them like children and then use words that I’d have used for my children to describe their presence.

And that’s where unconscious/implicit bias rears its sinister head.

See, it was really cute and sweet but, was it fair or honouring of the individuals’ on that stage?

Now, to be clear, this isn’t about saying it’s not okay to put on reindeer ears and prance around. If that’s your jam, go for it!

But, in the organizer’s insistence that everyone in the choir dress-up and act like reindeer, they took away the individual choir member’s agency and undermined their dignity through the inherent infantilization of their age.

And I compounded the issue by further infantilizing their performance with the words used to describe everyone, including our expressions of surprise that the performers could learn to play bells in the first place.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m still working through mine — all these years later it still bothers me how the words I used to describe my mother’s participation had little to do with her talent and proficiency at bell ringing and more to do with how cute and sweet she looked in her reindeer ears as she pranced onto stage.

Until I started seeing it all through the lens of implicit bias, I hadn’t quite been able to grasp what had concerned me about that performance (and others I witnessed at the assisted living centre too).

Thanks for reading and being part of the conversation.

Namaste

Episode 8: When we infantilize older adults, we undermine their agency and dignity

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7 thoughts on “Infantilizing older adults is not ok.

  1. LG,

    As I see it (and my experiences are more from my days in organizations serving older adults with developmental disabilities and some with dementia too) the issue is whether people are being pushed to do something vis-a-vis being supported to make free choices. If your mother was being allowed the option of participating that way, participating some other way, or watching from the audience – then that would be a good supportive/guided choice-making. If she had no choice or was being coerced, then it is simply abuse – either systemic or by her caregiver.

    I’ll add, from my dad’s final years, a failing body and failing hearing, but his mind very much intact – we would deal with doctors, nurses and others who would talk to me rather than him. He smiled, knowing I would catch their words better, but pissed off they were bypassing him. That pissed me off too, so I would direct them to talk to him and let me listen and ask questions for him. He smiled more then, and some of them ‘got it’ but I think their bias is a systemic one. It might lead to better/faster care, but it marginalizes and ignores the person inside the aging body.

    It’s a tough job, and we all want to be independent until we can’t be, and then we need vigilant advocates – our partners, our children, our care-givers to help us with self-advocacy.

    My three cents,

    Mark

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Mark. I really appreciate your comments and insights. And yes — there is a systemic bias at work as well that marginalizes and dismisses older adults in ways that are confounding and disturbing.

      For me — my mother wanted to play bells. Dressing up as a reindeer was never her jam. And more than anything, it is my use of words that are not reflective of the life she bilt that disturbed me. It was a reflex response — one I didn’t think much about at the time.

      One, I get to be aware of now and moving forward!

      Thanks for chiming in. Your perspective is very inclusive and honouring.

      Like

  2. I am stunned, upset, disappointed, no, I am disgusted that someone in authority even thought that dressing up elderly residents as reindeer, making them prance about on stage would be considered as CUTE, acceptable and adorable. What were they thinking?

    In my last thirty years of life I have been involved with caregiving of a number of individuals, two who had various stages of dementia, one full-blown. My own Mother who volunteered in a Polish seniors’ retirement / long term care facility as a librarian well into her 90s, was proud of the fact that in this particular residence her friends and other residents were treated with dignity and respect. Otherwise she would have walked. If she saw any demeaning type of behaviour by staff or a resident she made it her business to have it addressed. My 90lb Mother had the attention of the Board, the Foundation and all who mattered. I smile even today at some of the instances of her wielding her “elder” status to ensure that individuals were treated, addressed appropriately.

    When she was presented with the Sursum Corda Award by the Polish Consulate-General in Toronto, the Consul-General who knew my Mother, spoke about her kindness to others, how she ensured that she and her peers were treated with the respect and dignity they deserved, even at their elder age. This respect honoured their past achievements as well as their current ones.

    Your Mother’s prowess as a bell ringer is attributed to practice, time and dedication to an art form that is not easy to master. Taking on the role of a prancing reindeer does not recognize her talents, it demeans them.

    If you sense my anger you have received my message. I know that in instances when an individual regresses back into childhood through the ravages of dementia, they have mentally left the adult world. That does not mean that they and those elderly who are sound in mind need to be treated as “kids”.

    Louise, you slowly are opening “Pandora’s Box.”
    Namaste.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s a box that should never have been closed Iwona — or even created for that matter. Aging is a natural progression and outcome of life — the only indisputable fact about aging is… our life will end. Life itself will continue on.

      I appreciate your anger. I struggle with this one because I know the individuals involved were well-meaning and doing what they thought was ‘right’ for those they served. I just can’t let go of the feeling, it wasn’t in the individuals’ best interests but staged that way for the benefit of their ‘guests’, we, their audience.

      Hugs my friend.

      Like

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