One woman’s experiences with youth and the elderly

Please note: This piece is an elongated interview from the piece originally seen the Fulcrum’s print edition.

MARY ANN SHAULE has worked as a senior recreation therapist for over 22 years. Forced to deal with her mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis at the age of 15, Shaule found herself thrown into the field of elderly care. With her focus in life rapidly changing from that of an average teenager to those of an adult child with a sick parent, Shaule has considerable experience with illness and aging not only from the perspective of youth, but also from the view of the elderly.

What kind of experience do you have working with the elderly?

I have worked in the long-term care field as a Recreation Therapist for 22 years. This has given me an diverse experience working with seniors, mainly with [those suffering from] some kind of cognitive or physical limitation or in the later stages of their disease process. [I’ll admit that] my experience with seniors is skewed as I typically deal with seniors with impairments.

What motivated you to go into this field of work?

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease when she was 51 and I was only 15 years old. I helped my siblings with a lot of her personal care. At first I did not think I wanted to be involved with seniors as the period of time that I assisted with my mother was a very stressful time, especially at my age.

When I applied for a job in a nursing home because I needed to find employment to support myself, I took the job that was available in my [current] field of recreation services. Lo and behold, I discovered that because of my personal experience I was able to empathize with families and it was the driving force I needed to do a good job. I felt very strongly that compromised seniors in their last days of life should be provided the best quality of care. I felt that I was a good advocate for them.

I now have a brother with Alzheimer’s disease who is in the same nursing home that my mom was [in] more than 25 years ago. He is only 55 and so the personal drive continues for me because of him.

In your years working in this field, what impression have you cultivated about the way youth or younger family members tend to treat their elderly?

I [find] that in my experience that young people are generally afraid of nursing homes and probably afraid of the unknown. Youth that have had opportunities to visit grandparents in nursing homes [when they were young] appear to be more accepting of seniors and more flexible in their expectations. [Other] youth tend to be “guarded” around seniors as they don’t want to hurt them in any way or be unkind. As “respectful” as this may seem, I find it unnatural and does not allow the senior to truly feel valued.

Many seniors lose their self-worth as they no longer see themselves as contributing members of society, and in a way interaction with their children [does] reflect this. Children of our seniors start to make decisions for that elderly person, or if the senior has an opinion [on] something, that opinion is not highly regarded.

What has been the most saddening instance of this elderly neglect you describe that you have seen?

I sit on our local Elder Abuse Committeeand there are many instances of elder financial abuse which [are] shocking. There are countless cases of adult children literally stealing from their elderly parents who may be feeble and unable to do anything about it, or don’t want to do anything about it because they are afraid their children would stop visiting if they did.

One recent case I heard about was that an elderly mother was living in a garage, while the son lived in the house. There was very little food for the mother provided and she was very unkempt. The neighbours reported it to police. 

I see neglect in the nursing homes to some extent, but at least in the nursing home, the staff sort of “adopt” the senior so even if children don’t visit, at least the seniors have caring staff that provide good care and will do extra things like bring in treats, or even in some cases provide clothing, shoes, etc. that the senior may need but has no one else to provide for them. I have seen this countless times, and staff in the homes should be recognized [for their attentiveness and caring].

Why is it that youth tend to disregard the elderly in their lives?

In my opinion, we live in a world where outward appearance takes precedence over knowledge [and] experience. I don’t think youth have a high regard for seniors as they would not fit into what would be considered beautiful [or] youthful. Plus, our seniors don’t speak the same language as our youth. Seniors are not as technologically savvy, although some of them surprisingly are. Many residents today are coming into nursing homes with their own laptops! Youth don’t give seniors a second thought as they don’t think they have anything to contribute that may be worth listening to.

What do you think youth should know about the impact this disregard has?

Unfortunately, youth cannot [envision] the future and that they too will one day be a senior. If they could predict or have vision into the future, they may treat seniors differently. The impact on the seniors is that they feel low self worth and feel that their views are no longer valued and so, in some instances, become very quiet and stop making decisions for themselves. They become in essence a shell of their former selves. The impact on the youth is that they are disregarding the amount of knowledge and experiences that these seniors have [and could be sharing]. The amount of history [contained in the elderly] is astounding!

Why should youth care more for the elderly people in their lives?

It is basic human kindness to be good to others regardless of age. Many seniors still are very productive in later stages and should be encouraged and supported in all endeavours.    Many, many life lessons can be learned by being with a person who has had many life experiences, and in some ways, youth can avoid some life errors if they would take the advice of someone who may be able to direct them down the right path in life. It also feels great to be a part of someone’s life in which you have cared for them or visited them until they die. That friendship or being close to a grandparent is meaningful and lasts forever. What a great experience for a young person!

What value do you feel there is to be gained from maintaining a greater relationship with seniors?

I have learned many life lessons from seniors in my experience. Dealing with seniors who are vulnerable and impaired either mentally or physically has taught me to appreciate life always and to be positive. Relationships are important above all!

Many of these seniors have worked hard to have nice homes and material things, but when you come to a nursing home you have to give all of  that up, so why waste time on striving for that. What lasts the most is relationships with family and friends. That is what is important, not material things.

I try to take the most endearing attributes of each person I meet and learn from it or try to adopt it in my life. Like using humour, kindness, good listening, etc. These qualities have benefitted me over the years and especially in my career. Treating everyone as equals is something else I have learned and has served me well.

—Jaclyn Lytle