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Age Rage Revisted or Ain't Your Dearie, Dearie!

by Julia Sneden

Just step up on the scale, Sweet Pea, the cheery young nurse said to my 92-year-old mother.  When there was no response, the nurse tried again.

Cmon up here, Sweet Thing, she cooed. We need to weigh you.

My mother, who wears double hearing aids and still has difficulty interpreting what she hears, didnt move. Maybe, I thought, she is missing the instructions. I looked at the nurse and indicated my ear, just in case shed missed seeing Mothers hearing aids.

The nurse consulted the folder she held in her hands. MRS. PATTERSON! she shouted. Can you hear me? We need you to step up here!

My mother looked up sideways, because of the cervical arthritis that keeps her head and neck bent almost 90 degrees.

I heard you, she said quietly. I just thought you were speaking to someone else.

No, no, the nurse laughed. I meant you. Cmon, Sweet Pea, step on the scale.

 I couldnt believe the woman didnt get it. Youll get a lot farther if you call her something besides Sweet Pea, I suggested.

The nurse looked stunned. I was just trying to be nice, she said stiffly. My mother squeezed my arm as she stepped up on the scale. I understood her silent message: let it go.

 Much later, Mother explained the moment to a friend. It was just overload, she said. I am sick to death of all the nurses and aides at the nursing home calling me Honey and Dear and Sweetie. I know they think its good psychology, but it drives me nuts. And Sweet Pea seemed like the ultimate infringement. I had never seen that child (the nurse) in my life! And I am not anybodys Sweet Pea.

 We have long since moved Mother from the nursing home where the above events happened, but it seems to me that no matter where you go, the elderly are subjected to all sorts of unwelcome familiarity.

Its not that Mother is a stickler for propriety. She has never been a particularly formal person. We children and our friends often called her by her first name (still do). She was renowned for her ability to generate spontaneous celebrations and picnics and trips. She often sat on the floor. She allowed us to play dodge ball in the enclosed stairwell to the second floor of our house. She occasionally said: Lets read at the table, and all seven of us (grandmothers, parents, children) would sit down to supper, books in our hands.  She ran our home with a casual cheerfulness that made 24 Loma Road a very pleasant place to live.

In other words, Mother is not a stuffy old crank. What she is, is a person of considerable substance and accomplishment. A junior year Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College (class of 29), she is proficient in four languages, and can read a couple more. She managed to support a family while working toward her PhD at Stanford, by dint of teaching English at a local girls school, as well as freshmen English and English for foreign students at the university. She also served as reader for several professors, and edited doctoral theses for people in other departments. Later, she taught at a university in Korea, as well as in the University of North Carolinas Extension Division.
 
I think that my mother would be the last person to insist on formality with any person whom she knew, or who knew her.
 
The problem is that professional people do not know you. Standing fully unclothed in their presence does not constitute acquaintance. Theres a real paradox here: medical people will tell you not to be embarrassed, that unclothed bodies are of purely professional interest to them, and yet they often address you in the most unprofessional and even intimate way.

No matter how well-meaning such people may be when they offer endearments to the elderly, the result is de-personalizing and offensive. It is as if they see only an object called Old Person who needs jollying along. They do not seem to see a living, breathing human being with a history, an individual who may or may not be dear, or nice to know, or full of good information and experience.

The other day I heard a nursing aide address an elderly charge thus: You need to get your butt up on the bed, HoneyNo! No! You cant sit in the chair! I said on the bed! It probably wouldnt have mattered to her that she was addressing a distinguished professor emeritus, author of many books, winner of many prizes, and someone still in possession of his mind. To her, he was just that old guy in room 117 who doesnt follow orders.

And then there was Mr. Condon, a former neighbor of many years ago, who was without a doubt the meanest man I ever knew. I was in a dentists office one day when I heard one of the staff address him as dearie. I aint your dearie, he snapped. I aint ever been anyones dearie and Im sure not yours! I felt like shouting from my cubicle: Youve got that right, Mr. C.!

The anonymity of old age encourages presumption on the part of others. This unfortunate attitude often begins before one is really all that old. A friend who is in her early 50s tells this outrageous tale:

Before having a minor procedure (actually, a D&C), she was required to meet with the hospitals anesthesiologist. The young doctor entered the room, saying: Well, Lucy, lets see what we can do for you. There was no introduction, no do you mind if I call you Lucy? 

As she answered his questions, he continued to address her by her first name.  When she opined that shed not need an anesthetic, he laughed and told her: Oh, youll want something all right.
 
But my OB/GYN assured me that the procedure would be no worse than bad monthly cramps, she protested and considering that Ive borne three children without anesthesia

He shook his head. Lucy, he said, believe me, youll want something. They all do.

Lucy gave him a long, level stare. Excuse me, she said, but you never told me your name.

You dont need to know that, he said shortly. I wont be the doctor on duty.

Thats fine, she said, but I like to know the names of persons with whom Im speaking.

Thats silly, he said. I told you, I wont be there.

Look, she said, I dont expect you to be there. I just asked you for your name.

Doctor Briarfield, he snapped. But Ive told you, you wont need it.

Thank you, she said pleasantly. Im sure I wont. And by the way, my name is Mrs. Jones.
 
The doctor stood abruptly, and walked to the door. Well, good luck, Lucy, he said. 

Lucy got through the procedure without any anesthetic (she tells me she would gladly have died to avoid asking for any). Doctor Briarfield, true to his word, wasnt on duty. Lucy went home and looked him up in the phone book. His first name was Thomas. DEAR TOM, she printed in large letters on the postcard, THANKS ANYWAY, BUT MRS. JONES DIDNT NEED THE SERVICES OF THE ANESTHESIOLOGIST. SORRY YOU MISSED THE SHOW.

When Lucy recounted this tale to a group of friends, she triggered an avalanche of similar stories. Nearly every one of us had encountered the same sort of insensitivity and condescension. And the consensus was that the doctors error in presuming her inability to bear pain wasnt nearly as serious as his arrogance in calling her by her first name. After all, Lucy knew she could prove him wrong in the former, but as she said, there was no way to level the playing field when he insisted on calling her Lucy!

 

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