Age Does Not Equal Diminished Capacity

The assumptions that are made by too many people who, perhaps unwittingly, assume that advanced age means diminished mental capacity, is troubling. Too often, the competent elderly are written off as not understanding and incapable of making informed decisions for themselves. Of course, this is not limited to those who are new to the fields in which they practice and is universally spread around our citizenry.

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As so often happens when speaking to persons whose first language is not English, professionals often speak loudly and use both a tone and simple, kindergarten-grade language. It is demeaning, insulting and uncalled for and it reinforces a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness in the older adult.

If these people who are supposed to be advocating for them don’t see them as competent, what’s the use of battling, some must feel. Others, who try to protest are then written off as having aggressive tendencies due to some underlying, undiagnosed mental illness. Not sad but totally unacceptable, especially when the professional is not in touch with their own bias in elderly care.

A case in point came to my attention recently. A couple, who were preparing for the division of their property upon the death of either partner, was in an attorney’s office. A new property deed had to be obtained because the old one had been lost or was never given to them when the property was bought. Perhaps you find this odd or unbelievable. In the incredible tangle of documents and procedures associated with real estate purchases in two states, however, this is understandable. Somehow, it happened.

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The woman paralegal who was at the closing with the new deed (yes, they had to have a “closing” now), had the documents attesting to the loss of the deed and other financial property searches and found it incumbent on her to stress the seriousness of the matter.

Leaning over and with a too-serious look on her face, she said in a too-authoritarian tone, “Now, remember, if this is ever lost, you are going to have to go through this all over again. It is going to cost you a lot of money again. Do you understand? You will have to pay for all of this again, so don’t lose it.”

Forget that it had never been lost. She refused to believe that and, instead, believed the couple, because of their age (one near 80 and the other near 70), were incompetent to properly care for legal documents.

The woman didn’t say this once. She repeated it as she loomed over the couple at the imposing conference room desk toward them, documents in hand. Did she think the thought of having to go through this tedious exercise wasn’t enough a first time and now they’d, foolishly, forget that they’d have to go through it a second time? They’d already paid almost $4,000 to recreate all the documents, the legal fees and have the proper searches competed. Did she really think they had that kind of money to do it again?

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What about the attorney in the case? Where was this person in this interaction carried out by his paralegal? He, for his part, had warned the couple in a stern voice that they, “Need to get a firebox for your home and keep these documents there. If anything ever happens, you’re going to have to go through this all over again.” Then he related how his wife (in her 60s) didn’t know a thing about where their documents were or what she should do should he die. Confusing and somewhat contradictory here?

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The truly offensive aspect of both of these interactions is that both members of the couple had advanced degrees, having achieved doctoral degrees in their professions. They were both competent, functioning adults who maintained all of their personal and financial needs without assistance, yet they were being lectured like children. Age was the only factor here.

How aware are you of your biases and how many times have you failed to recognize the totally aware, competent person inside their, possibly, damaged shell of a body? In fact, they don’t even need to have any external signs of physical illness for this to occur.

Next time, try to do your own assessment check on YOU.