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Dignity: the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect. (Definition sourced from Oxford Languages.)
Honor and respect. Two things most if not all humans want to experience feeling and receiving in their lives. In fact, civil society is based on dignity. At a basic level, a functioning civil society believes that each individual is worthy of honor and respect.
In this article, I’d like to put this into perspective around aging and diseases of dementia.
When I think about what my purpose is, or what the deeply internal “why” is for me, a few things come to the surface for me:
- helping kids learn how to control their mindset
- solving homelessness
- combating racism and increasing inequity
- dignity for the diseased and the aging
That last one speaks to me because I live at a 50% risk for Huntington’s Disease from my mom’s side of the family. Also, on my dad’s side his father and a few of his siblings developed dementia related to protein buildup in the brain (lewy bodies and beta-amyloid plaque).
In Western culture, outlooks are pretty grim for people who develop dementia, but also for the aging population in general. This, I believe, is due to the mindset that took hold a long time ago about the utility of older people. In many cultures, regardless of their state, the elders of a community are revered. Even as dementia sets in, there is still valuable knowledge, love, and affection to be gained. There is also a life lived to be honored.
In a capitalist society, where the utility of a working mind and body is highly valued, the minds and bodies of the diseased and elderly are viewed as a burden. (Unless you’re in the nursing home industry, because then there is a dollar value again.)
I don’t say all this to rip on my culture. I myself am a business owner and have benefited from the structures of the country I live in. But as a middle aged woman with a mother moving further into her own journey with Huntington’s Disease, and who volunteers within her own HD community and sees the disease progress in others, I see what the attitudes towards people with diseases, disabilities, and aging has created in our society.
So how do we change it? That’s a pretty complicated question, but I do think that there needs to be a radical (fundamental) change in our mindset towards this population. We all want to have a dignified existence when we’re older. And while perhaps we see our own grandparents as deserving of that dignity, what about low income elderly people living in Medicare funded nursing homes? People who lived productive human lives, had jobs and kids, paid taxes and had hobbies. People who helped friends and loved ones through grief, and perhaps assisted other humans to better positions. Is the story we assume about them dignified? Is it worthy of honor and respect?
Imagine if we as a culture believed every diseased and aged person was worthy of dignity? We might like to say we believe that, but when the rubber hits the road the actions of our society do not reflect that.
There are small glimmers of hope that people out there are thinking about this, and truly want to shift things on a systemic level. But it’s going to take a paradigm shift in culture to recreate the way we think about aging in our western society.
I hope I’m a part of it. I hope that through my coaching practice I can open peoples minds to new possibilities, and in turn create the tribe needed to eventually embed positive change.
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