Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about “old people.” As part of a younger generation, this may seem like an odd topic to reflect on, but I recently read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck (a fellow West Virginia native). In it, the main character, Wang Lung, follows Chinese traditions and morals of filial piety, and he has a strong sense of duty to his family. Dutifully, he takes care of his parent despite various hardships in his own life.
As I read the news, I seem to notice a growing trend in articles on elder abuse and elder mediation. As I meet more attorneys, a significant number seem to be offering elder mediation services. In speaking with a social worker, she explained how Adult Protective Service’s role has become less about serving dependent adults and serves almost solely elder adults. Perhaps I’ve only noticed this trend because this topic is now on my mind, but it brings up some important issues. There are a unique set of problems that arise when families must make living arrangements for an elder adult and must determine who will play the role of caregiver. In the United States, typically, the elderly are sent to nursing homes. In some subcultures, it is more common for parents to live with a child, where the entire extended family may reside.
Throughout this transition for the elderly, decisions are often made without considering the dignity and respect that ought to be given to the elder adult. Cloaked in the veil of “concern,” an individual may conspire with their siblings to determine the fate of a parent or grandparent. While this may seem like a good idea, it fails to consider the opinion of everyone, particularly the elder adult. Life is about dignity. Human beings strive to live a dignified life. People want to work hard to earn a living. People want to struggle to raise a family the right way. People want to have their basic needs met so that they can attain the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy: self-esteem and ultimately self-actualization. People yearn for respect. Making decisions without considering the wishes of an elder adult strips them of respect and leaves them feeling powerless—in a time when they may already feel powerless due to an imminent health concern or a disease like Alzheimer’s.
Trained mediators may bring a new perspective to this dispute. The process of mediation allows both parties to have respect and maintain their dignity. “Old people” have lived a long life and often have great wisdom. I personally think our culture needs to shift its thinking away from our current view. Instead of shipping adults to nursing homes, we should invite our parents into our own home and work with service providers to ensure they get the adequate care they require. “They have cared for us, it is time to care for them.” This should be our motto.
Our culture values old cars. Individuals pour millions of dollars into restoring machines and they are preserved in great museums for all to see. Likewise, we should realize the value that the elderly bring to the table and learn from them. While these notions may be idealistic, mediation is a small way to help families transition while still giving everyone the respect and dignity deserved.