Readings on old age

I’m taking a break from my readings to eat something and write something. It’s 12:29pm, it’s sunny outside, I am 42 years old, an ex-smoker, retired musician and lover of fine foods who does not particularly like men but married one anyway.

Look, it sounds funny, right? I am so much more than this description. I’ve done amazing things in my life, and I’ve been so much more in both a professional and personal capacity, but a few short words to sum me up is all you get in that paragraph. It’s so reductive. It’s the red wine reduction of biographies. It’s the soap crud of a life. It’s something you can digest so that you can move ahead to the “point” of the chapter. It’s… kinda bad!

Yet, in days of diligent reading, I read chapter upon chapter of clinical psychologists introducing people the same way. The human beings described in these papers and books are people who have twice the number of years on planet Earth that I’ve had. But it all begins the same way, even with the best of the author’s intentions. A “core” reading for this class, for example, is written by a team out of the UK who appear to have suddenly discovered the power of storytelling as a therapeutic tool. Their enthusiasm and delight is lovely, but it troubles me. Their writings seem to exclaim, “Oh! Look what the old people did when we listened to them! It’s working!”

I mean, I’m really glad they’re doing this and that they have realised that it’s more than just a little special moment between a therapist and a client. I’m glad that people are now recognising that this is a real, measurable intervention to which both psychologists and medical doctors should pay close, serious attention. Still, I admit to rolling my eyes a bit. I’ve been doing this for years and I’m an undergrad. You people just figured it out? Really?

It seems a hopeless inevitability that we’re going to categorise people in an effort to reduce cognitive load. That is, our brains really don’t want to work that hard. We categorise and reduce other human beings to a snapshot, because, in short, our brains are Norms who cannot be arsed with complexity and full colour. That’s great and it keeps us from being overwhelmed, and maybe today I’m a bit saddened by all the readings because they’re full of people in their old age telling us that it’s lonely, it’s hard, our bodies won’t work properly, we can’t poop alone anymore and we can’t drive ourselves to get a burger. We had to give up our driver’s license, the nephrologist has told us we can’t eat burgers anymore, and what’s more, there’s nobody to get a burger with anymore, because they’re all dead.

Bleak, huh?

I guess the lecturers prescribe all these readings never actually expecting that any of the students are actually going to read them all.

I do wonder, though, if psychological science stands to improve its game a little on how we’re going to continue to frame old age and death and end-of-life care in our writings and textbooks. We keep attempting to teach ourselves not to describe the aged as “them”, as in, “us and them”, because the residents of aged care are us. As a speaker in a prescribed viewing thingo from my week 3 module says, “We were once our mothers; there’s no ‘us’ without you….” Despite always saying never to “us and them” anyone, we go ahead in the same breath, and do just that. Language is restrictive. Researchers focus on a sample. That is always going to come with categorisation.

For the uninitiated, the standard psychology degree is a real test of one’s command of English. I’ve joked more than once that I don’t have a psychology degree; I have a “formatting degree”. However, I do wonder that the strict style guides and research reports, while existing for good reason, don’t implicitly and concurrently teach us to view human beings from “other” categories to ourselves in a way that is cumulatively, collectively somewhat harmful, or at the very least, a restricted view.

So how do we break the habit? Tradition is very powerful, and the irony with psychological science is that it is just as prone to socialised effects as every other discipline. Food for thought.


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