By Atalia CADRANEL, Mitzvah Day
When, on several occasions, I’ve gushed: “You really are the highlight of my week” to a group of care home residents, for whom I facilitate a weekly current affairs discussion, they gasp in amazement and, inevitably, I have to convince them I’m not being disingenuous.
I’ve never enquired why the incredulity, partly because the group is a mix of people with varying degrees of dementia and partly because I don’t want to risk hearing mutterings like: “because we know we’re not a social priority to anyone, because a large proportion of the interaction we receive is based around basic welfare care, because most people can’t be bothered with us now we’re not contributing members of society.”
Subliminally or consciously, older people may hold these sentiments. Being a seasoned volunteer for older members of our society for more than 20 years doesn’t make me a social science geriatrics guru, but it has enabled me to accrue some notable observations and a love and reverence for older people.
I recently discovered the government definition of “older people” is some-one aged 50 and older – it’s just as well I adore older people if I’m to be one in two years’ time! Flippantly, I shared my newly-acquired anecdote with my 90+ year olds, who chuckled and even more so when I explained it is politically incorrect to use the term “elderly”. My amateur market research resulted in consensus that the “elderly” label is a badge of honour. But let’s not delve into the prejudicial debate around terminology or the politics of ageism.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is to be applauded for recently getting to the nub of the matter and chastising the way we neglect older people, calling it a “national disgrace”. My informal observations of those employed to take care of the health and wellbeing of older people both in the UK and the US is only of kindness, care and dedication.
Sadly, there are exceptions to the rule and similar to the high-profile abuse and neglect of children, these cases also need to be rooted out and dealt with as a matter of urgency.
The fact that we’re living longer inevitably means our population is fast-growing older, which is why what’s equally urgent is a compelling campaign for communities around the country to engage voluntarily with our most senior of citizens, in simple, meaningful ways that have long-term valuable impact.
Convenient negative stereotypes that our “elders” are cranky, feeble, forgetful and confused, propagate a stay away approach, depriving all demographics of beneficial give and give relationships. We’re social animals who thrive through physical, intellectual and emotional interaction and this innate need does not decrease as we get older.
What does increase without enough of it is a sense of loneliness and isolation. My weekly visits together with intermittent, particularly heavenly ones including my children, magically light up the faces of those we visit. So humbling, yet so stress-free for just an hour each time. Often I share my heart-warming experiences with family and friends and one time too many I’ve had the response: “Old people aren’t my thing.”
Such sentiments are a critique of our society and not of the individual who is likely giving in other ways to equally important but outwardly more appealing charities. There are many selfless volunteers in our com- munity and beyond, who dedicate hours daily and weekly to running activities and sharing with older people.
But there aren’t enough to spread the load and older people are crying out for younger faces – from babes in arms, to school children, young families, and those merely younger than them! Now in its sixth year, Mitzvah Day’s Sunshine to Seniors initiative is the best kind of taster for all generations to experience if “older people”’ are their thing. Thankfully, a good number of participants have quickly learned it is their thing, establishing regular visits and lasting relationships.
Last year 100 such projects took place! Imagine Sunshine to Seniors as an imperative year-round – 100 x 52 weeks. I’ll let you do the sums – maths isn’t my thing, but older people definitely are!