When I was in graduate school, I went to a screening of a mutual friend’s documentary, The Mayor, on retirement home residents. During the post-screening discussion, a college-age girl exclaimed, “I don’t like old people but this documentary is interesting. I didn’t realize they have something in common with us.” One of my friends, a budding gerontologist, glared at the girl with much confusion.
A year ago, a colleague who worked exclusively with children and adolescents pulled me aside and said, “I really don’t like old people. I am so glad you enjoy working with them.” I was so taken aback that I failed to tell her although I wasn’t passionate about working with children and adolescents, I certainly didn’t dislike them as a group.
When new acquaintances find out I work with older persons, two common responses emerge: 1. “Oh, that’s a much needed profession and you’re going to make a lot of money;” 2. “Oh, it’s fun to listen to their life stories and you learn a lot!” What they say are not entirely wrong but these aren’t the reasons why I am in this field– I happen to like old people; and I like working with them.
Truth is, you don’t even have to like the people you serve in order to like the act of serving them. However, if you clearly resent them, it may pose a problem. Ever since I was a kid, I have often wondered why some health care professionals appeared to enjoy making fun of “the crazy” or “grandma.” It was only after I dived into the field that I realized ageism is very much alive in mental health care, as is mental illness stigma in eldercare.
What complicates matters is that ageism exists among older adults just as mental illness stigma survives among people with mental illness. When trying to dissuade me from recommending that she move to a nursing home, one of my 80-year-old clients used to say, “But those people in the nursing home are SO OLD!” I encouraged her to consider how she could help “those old people” with her positive personal qualities. To that she replied, “They’ll be too far gone to get my jokes!”
Here is a report put together by the WHO and WPA to reduce stigma of older adults with mental illness published almost 10 years ago. How much progress have we made in the past 10 years? What are your thoughts on that?