New Year; New Attitudes
In recent weeks I’ve been working in a nursing home rehabilitation setting surrounded by several adults in their late thirties and early forties. On numerous occasions, a number have referred to themselves as being “old.” Each and every time they referred to themselves in this manner I voiced ideas to the contrary; each and every time there was consistent pushback. In one instance agal approaching her 40th year said her own father referred to her as getting “old”.
What must we do to dispel these ageist attitudes? When and how shall we begin? Where did they originate?
Shall we be determined that in 2022, knowing that we are now two years into what the United Nations has declared “the decade of healthy aging”, that we embark on a course to dispel the notion of “oldness”
defined by the Free Dictionary defines as:
a. Having lived, or existed, for a relatively long time; far advanced in years or life.
b. Relatively advanced in age
c. Of or relating to a long life or to people who have had long lives. Certainly, 30’s and 40’s, even 50’s, 60s, and possibly the early years of the 70s most likely do not fall into any of the definitions of oldness.
During Shakespeare’s times, the life expectancy of an average person was approximately 40 years of age, one who lived longer was thought to defy all odds which was related to ravages of the plague, striking every few years, as well as malaria, smallpox, and syphilis. Those who these ills were considered lucky and “old.”
Though the words and phrases Shakespeare used to describe or refer to aging have been studied by scholars over the course of centuries, it is thought that those words and ideas have permeated the general public’s and influenced attitudes towards aging. It is likely that Shakespeare writing for his time, or many of us today, would have imagined that his words would affect present day notions about growing older.
One of my favorites among the works of Shakespeare’s is Hamlet. I’m particularly fond of a line that aptly states that perceptions and attitudes can be changed. This of course can to refer to any situation, but certainly can be applied to our attitudes towards older adults and aging in general. “There is nothing either good or bad; but thinking makes it so.”
Beyond Shakespeare's words, what has permeated our thinking towards aging and older adults? Is it based on the history of the Almshouses which was based on an English concept and first introduced into the Americas by William Penn, who founded the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Almshouses were originally intended to be charitable, providing food and shelter to older people unable to work any longer and who were without the means, family or help to care for them. however, they lost often targeted the indigent, handicapped, elderly or widows of the poorest segments of society. One description offers an image of a dire situation: The elderly oftentimes had to reside alongside "insane, inebriated or homeless" regardless of age. These places came to be known as poorhouses, though being "placed" there was not necessarily associated with a person's financial situation.
Churches and women's groups rose to the occasion. They established what was known as the first houses of the elderly, primarily for widows and single women with limited financial means. Amongst the first homes were the Widows Single Women's Society in Philadelphia (1823) and the Home for the Aged Women in Boston (1850). However, these homes were not open to all in need. There were considerable entrance fees, and in some cases, women had to supply references attesting to their good character. This left many who were in dire need relegated to the almshouses.
One could see these homes perpetuated a kind of elitism that reinforced the social inequality and injustices of the times. The founder's concern was that "worthy individuals of their own ethnic or religious background might end their days alongside the most despised." According to the founds of the Boston House for Aged Women, "a haven for those who were bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh...and expressed disdain for foreigners who.....have taken possession of the public charities....as they have of the houses where our less privileged classes formerly resided." Thus, there was a stark contrast between these 2 institutions: benevolent and charitable care on the one hand associated with church and women's groups versus the deplorable conditions associated with the Almshouses.
Almshouses were the primary residences that cared for the elderly throughout the nineteenth century. Individual states also had a program called "outdoor relief" were meager provisions of money, clothing or wood were supplied as a means of survival allowing a person to live independently. However, this "relief" could be revoked at any tie, forcing the person back into the Almshouse.