I was talking to a friend who lives with her mother so that she can assist her.
One of their regular outings is to the local senior center, where her mother, whom I will call Anne, is among peers and has the opportunity to visit.
My friend was telling me that a number of people have started approaching her without addressing Anne at all.
How sad. This 99-year-old woman has had a lifetime of working, volunteering and serving the community. She is intelligent and well-informed.
She has a hard time hearing these days, so one might have to repeat things, but once Anne gets it, her answer will be good.
When people address her daughter, they miss out on pleasant conversation with her; Anne misses the pleasure of interacting with friends.
How rude: Anne is still a whole person. Being left out is dishonoring and demeaning. My friend says that Anne has left the gathering feeling hurt on more than one occasion: Something that doesn’t need to happen.
Anne is by no means alone in her experience. My late nephew, John, called me two years ago when his parents and he were at a family reunion. He felt so hurt because people either didn’t acknowledge him or talked down to him.
I myself go through this on a regular basis, at stores, restaurants, Church, family gatherings and just about anywhere people are together. I have learned to cope with this unpleasant experience by staying away or advocating for myself whenever possible. Sometimes, I simply have to let it be and concentrate on the people who include me.
I have learned that this is not wrong with me or even about me in the first place. IT is about people’s own fears, discomfort, assumptions and yes, prejudice. I understand this all too well, and I don’t accept it as all right or necessary. People are capable of learning and maturing.
We are all far more alike than we are different. We all want to be accepted and included. Even people with the most severe disabilities among us perceive and feel. I cringe when I hear family members or care givers talk about the person who has the disabling condition in that one’s presence, especially when their words are disparaging. I think of someone I know who runs a group home for people with developmental disabilities: She told me that one young woman can be such a nuisance, while that person was standing beside me. On another occasion, I had a family member thank me for letting my sister stay with me, while my sister was standing right in front of us: Dishonoring and uncomfortable.
There are people I know, who greet me as an equal and treat me with dignity. They don’t seem to need a lot of time to get past my visual impairment. Instead, they speak to me directly and expect an
intelligent response. One example of this would be a sales person with whom I did business yesterday. He spoke to me; he answered my companion when appropriate. I spent a nice amount of money at his store.
If you are more like this gentleman, you can be a great deal of help to any of us who are at the receiving end of attitudes and actions that push us away or down into the “less than” place. First, you are wonderful models, which make you powerful advocates. Next, if you can redirect or coach people without condescending to the elder or person with a disability, please do.
So what can be done if you find yourself among those who act in fear, discomfort and assumption?
First: In all honesty and without shame, start with your own struggle. You likely have no idea about what it is like not to see or hear. That’s okay; in fact, I don’t expect you to understand, since that is outside of your experience. You do know what it is like to have interests, feelings and treasures that you would like to share with others. You know what positive connection feels like and how to offer that as you interact.
You do want to be accepted and included. You know what it feels like to be put down or left out: Such occurances are common to each of us.
When have you felt most honored? What was that like? How could you share that with people around you?
When do you feel best about yourself, especially in relationships? How can you build on that?
What gifts do you have to offer?
How willing are you to receive from people around you, even when they seem to be quite different?
The real cure, after all, is to know and love yourself so that you can reach out to others and be open to who they are.