Othering and empathy

Professor Simon Biggs from the University of Melbourne School of Social and Political Sciences spoke at the Better Practice Conference in Adelaide this week. He spoke about human rights and

old_and_young_2x2ageism in Australia. The human rights perspective has not been brought to bear on ageing much to date and this is especially true of aged care.

Several things struck me about his presentation. Firstly he spoke of “rights holders” and “duty bearers”. The older person is the rights holder and we are the duty bearers who have a duty to uphold or protect the person who holds the right. It made me think of the situation I have face in the past when families and others overwhelm the older person and essentially cajole them into going into aged care. This is a failure of our duty to uphold their right to agency, to choice. Even cognitive impairment does not take away a person’s right to agency, choice.

The other point he made was that we have difficulty with empathy for older people (and this especially true of our relationships with older people with dementia) and we “other ” them. We make them into an “other” who is different, not like “us”. Kitwood referred to the work of Martin Buber who spoke of an “I” “Thou” relationship in which the other person is not made into something different but is recognized as a subject, a person like me.  However, when we engage in “othering” we have difficulty with empathy, with recognizing elements of our own experience in the other person treat the person who is old, who has dementia as if they are not like us, have little in common with us, are essentially different to us.

I remember coming to grips with this problem in myself some years ago when I realised that I could not picture these older people as once young, once like me, smooth of face and strong of limb. I concentrated on trying to make this connection and it helped me to engage with the older person as a person with outlooks, perspectives, experiences and feelings like mine, hopes like mine.

Simon Biggs said that empathy is the antidote to othering. What do you think?


Age is completely irrelevant

I have recently been trying  to lose weight and get fit with an eye on the next 40 years of my life (currently 53). I wanted to bring down my BSL and my weight and raise my fitness so I could resume running after some decades of virtual inactivity.

I have been going OK with some weight loss and pretty regular running with my dog Bonnie. Today I was inspired to lose whatever age related negativity I had remaining when I read in The Age (Melbourne daily) of two 87 year old men who are riding in this year’s Great Victorian Bike Ride. This ride (Nov 27-Dec5 2010) is 9 days of  cycling over 590 kms. These two guys have ridden in this gruelling ride for the past few years and still find the determination and endurance to get ready for it and then do it each year.

If they can do it so can I. I can at least get out of bed more regularly and make a significant effort to get fit again. Maybe even run in a 5 or 10 km run next year. Or even get back in the saddle and ride in the Great Victorian Bike Ride again as I did once in my 30s.

They are an inspiration. Age is no longer relevant in limiting our thinking about what is possible. We know about greater fitness but we also know about brain plasticity. So as we age our brains are still able to produce new neurons and to make new connections between existing neurons. I can learn a new language. I can learn a new skill. I can get fit again.

Nothing is limited by my age. In fact my life experience makes me even better at knowing how to do these things in a more wise manner so I don’t go out and train too hard and tear muscles or injure myself at I might have once.

“I’m too old for that” is no longer a reasonable argument against taking up something new. If we don’t want to take up a new activity we should not blame it on age.

The Mind your Mind or Mind your Brain promotions of the Alzheimers associations in Australia UK and the US have all promoted brain health by eating well, exercising, keeping yourself mentally engaged with life and socialising well.

So I must get out there and take Bonnie for a walk. For her sake as well mine.

What are you doing for yourself to enjoy your life to the full for as long as possible? Tell us about it.

What value are our older people?

Getting old happens to other people. When I was much younger (some grey hair now) I looked on old people as though they had always been old. Now I can see they they were once smooth of skin and nimble of limb. They once had hopes and visions of a life as 20 year old’s do. Now they see life from a different place.

Today we value productivity, the capacity to think and solve problems, to know how to search the internet, to remember passwords and PINs. But what happens when you can’t do that anymore or not quickly enough for the bright young things whose time it is.

We used to value a different knowledge to the knowledge of the entrepreneurs and opinion makers of today. Our older people learned how to memorise when you didn’t have access to online information sources, to make distinctions between people in society depending on which school you went to and how much you earned, to stay within their social setting and keep their job for a lifetime in uncertain times shaped by devastating depression and world wars.

Draw on the experience of people who have lived longer than you. They might not know how to twitter or google but they often know how to make good decisions (mind you I’ve known a few who are not good at making good decisions), or sort through a difficult moral issue or simply know how to listen well and patiently. They have seen it before probably and are not as phased by it as we can be. A calm mind.

Today I was flicking through a book in a department store and read for few minutes of the wartime exploits of a group of Australian soldiers in WWII imprisoned in Croatia by the Germans, escaped and lived a long and fruitful life judging by the photos in the book. The author has a story to tell that can inspire and cause wonder at the strength of the human spirit and the wisdom gained over the years of living.

Get hold of an older person you trust and talk to them. Involve them in your life. Ask them to be your mentor. Learn from them.

People like the soldier are sources of life for us younger people and much younger. My suggestion is don’t let them slip through your fingers. If you have an older person in your life, treasure them and engage with them, listen to them tell their stories for the umpteenth time, and get them a cup of tea when they want one. Learn patience and the value of waiting.