When I walked into the room, they bound my fingers with tape. They stuffed cotton in my ears, gave me glasses covered in parts with black tape. They put hard corn in my shoes and tied a bib around my neck. Then they put my name tag on and I became Anna, age 91.
They sat me in a room with 50 other similarly impaired good sports. Our goal, in the next hour and a half, was to experience some of the discomforts and indignities of old age--arthritis, hearing loss, vision problems, bunions, condescending treatment. This way we could better empathize.
During lunch, we dribbled our food, complained about our vision and yelled to get through the cotton plugs. Someone mentioned all he needed was a Depends.
The last time I went through something like this I was pledging a sorority, but this was a different rite of passage. This was AgeSense, sensitivity training for health-care workers. Sponsored by CareAmerica, the course is offered two or three times a month to medical groups affiliated with the health plan.
The program, says facilitator Cecelia Chavez, helps employees become aware of the sensory changes that occur with aging and, more important, how best to treat people with such infirmities.
Among the myths Chavez and co-facilitator Rita Nunez put out to pasture were:
* If an old person is confused, he's probably senile.
* If someone is hard of hearing, yelling is the best solution.
* If an older person is having trouble doing something you could do much faster and easier, you should rush in and help.
In fact, much of the reason so many of the elderly are written off as difficult is precisely because of these false assumptions.
"Their anger is a defense, a reaction to condescending behavior and impatience," said Chavez. She urged those working with the elderly to look at what's behind the disagreeable behavior and address that.
For example, though many seniors do suffer some type of dementia, confusion often has its roots in hearing loss, reactions to medications or the fact that the person has merely slowed down a bit. Once the root of the problem is accurately identified, caregivers can be more understanding and appropriate in their responses.
To give participants an idea of how it felt to have a hearing loss, they took the cotton out of their ears and had a hearing test. The goal was to decipher words as they sounded to people with various hearing problems, such as high frequency loss. We learned that volume doesn't help--it just makes the problem louder. What does work, said Chavez, is to speak up, yes, but not yell, and to speak slowly, clearly and to make eye contact.
A final point Nunez made was to let older people do for themselves what they can. Many caregivers tend to step in and do, she said, admitting she used to do this with her own mother when she took too long to perform a task.
"It makes you impatient to stand by and watch someone take 10 minutes to do something you could do in two. But remember, just because they're not as quick doesn't mean they're not competent. Don't take that competence away."
Perhaps the most revealing exercise was the Age-Line. Participants formed a circle starting with the youngest person and ending with the oldest. Chavez then asked participants to go to a place in the circle representing the age they would like to be. The under-30 crowd did some shifting, but nobody over 50 budged.
"Please notice," she said, pointing to the more senior circle members. "It's like this in all my groups. These people are proud to be here."
Still, the prospect of old age made many nervous.
As Ray Gerhardt, 26, who works in CareAmerica's complaint department, observed: "The class was pretty entertaining, but will it be funny in the future? It's easy to take these glasses off and go back to normal, but it will be hard when you can't."
He said he wished he'd taken the class a couple of years ago when his father was dying of cancer. "This class reminded me of my insensitivity. I had a lot of anger toward this man who used to pick me up and throw me around and now could barely walk. I would have been less angry and intolerant of his loss and more accommodating if I'd known what I do now."
Carol Jenkins, 38, a customer service manager, who was put in a wheelchair and largely ignored, said she realized how important it was to take time for older people. "My parents are in their 80s. I hear the same story over and over and I lose patience. Now I realize that my listening gives value to their lives."