This is a guest column by Kitty Holman, who writes on the topics of Nursing Schools.
All around us in modern Western society is evidence that elderly adults who cannot care for themselves on their own are being abused and neglected. I believe that much of this is a result of a general social disregard for this vulnerable population group. This broad disregard is such that many of them—especially those with disabilities and those living with chronic pain—would rather have their lives ended for them than go on living in a world where they perceive they are not valued. Yes, we can certainly see the evidence. But have we ever stopped to consider why it is that so many in our society think treating the elderly this way is acceptable? Here I will attempt to answer the great "why" question.
1. Us-versus-them mentality. In the early 1980s, a German-born American scholar named Wolf Wolfensberger proposed his relationship theory called Social Role Valorization. The theory suggested that society tends to categorize certain groups of people (them) as fundamentally "different" and of less value than everyone else (us). This theory is not only evident in how many regard the elderly who cannot entirely care for themselves, but it is also evident in the way many people routinely ignore the homeless, do not make eye contact with people with disabilities of all ages, and do not feel entirely at ease with people of a different race. Society has a habit of stacking up reasons why someone is different from them and using those reasons to place a lower value on that person.
2. The tendency to "shoot" our weak and wounded. The theory of evolution suggests that only the strong survive. The danger here is taking the theory to the point where it becomes an ideology—that only the strong should survive. However, evidence of this concept is apparent in a number of social groups. Many religious groups routinely ostracize and shun those among them who are "spiritually weak" and commit more visible "sins," rather than reaching out to pull them back into fellowship. In the business world, instead of working to improve weak performers, many bosses cut their losses, and hire new talent. Some part of human nature sincerely believes they will be considered weak—and fail socially—if they associate themselves with weak people; they believe if they rescue someone from drowning, they too will drown. For the elderly who need our help, this can mean their needs go ignored. After all, only the strong survive.
3. Lack of compassion. Compassion and respect for the elderly don't always come naturally—they are most often learned character traits. These traits must be instilled in us as children or demonstrated to us in some other way in our adult life. Parents do not always teach their children from an early age to treat the elderly with the utmost respect.
4. The idea that one's value is based on what one can contribute to society. The subtle undercurrent here is that the elderly no longer have the ability to "repay" the "debt" of care that is given them. Even if they recover and their pain is adequately managed, they are still knocking on death's door—why waste efforts on someone who will only be around for a short time? A child or younger adult, if he or she is cared for, may yet recover and go on to contribute to society. Therefore, we devalue the elderly.
5. Youth-centric culture. Western culture, especially the U.S., is obsessed with youth, unlike other cultures who respect and even revere older individuals for their wisdom. Society as a whole believes our children are worth fighting valiantly for when they are ill or in pain, but does not generally fight as hard for their elderly, who have already lived their lives and are no longer part of society's warped ideal—young, vibrant, and beautiful.
This guest post is contributed by Kitty Holman, who writes on the topics of Nursing Schools at: http://www.nursingschools.net/blog/. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: firstname.lastname@example.org