You’ll grow old, too – if you’re lucky

Leslie Duvall, left, a California district representative with U.S. Rep. John Campbell, and Jeannean Burlace of SCAN Health Plan, attempt to correctly separate colored pills while wearing glasses that simulate yellowing of the lens, an age-related vision change, during a workshop called Trading Ages.

OK, it is confession time. And I feel very bad about this. I have been known on occasion to make fun of old people.

I am not proud of this. It is nothing I have ever done outside of my own head, but there is this need to come clean about it.

The reason, mostly, is because the other day I sat through a workshop in Irvine, Calif., where I was challenged to “walk in the shoes” of older adults. The workshop was put on by SCAN Health Plan, a not-for-profit Medicare Advantage organization in California and Arizona, which is dedicated to finding better ways for seniors to manage their health and to control where and how they live. “Trading Ages,” they called it.

It would, they promised of the workshop, give me a new and better understanding of the challenges associated with aging. Did it ever.

There were about a dozen of us, most of the others field representatives for congressmen and members of the California Assembly, the idea being to better sensitize officials to their constituents’ needs and issues.

Jacque Lauder, a gerontologist and our instructor for the day, walked into the room with a question.

“Who is going to be younger tomorrow than they are today?” she asked, scanning the room.

“No one is,” she finally said. “The goal IS to get older. You either get older or you get dead.”

It caught our attention.

And then she asked us about the elderly, and our thoughts about them. She displayed photographs of various seniors, and asked us to give our take on what might be happening in them.

One couple I assumed, mostly because they were old, was at a funeral. Actually, they were getting married.

“They were getting married in their 80s,” Lauder said. “Why? He said because he loved her and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.”

She just as quickly stopped everyone cold.

“You are someday going to be one of THEM!” she said, looking each of us in the eye. “Appearances can be deceiving. We are here today to strip away the boxes we put people into.”

In Orange County, Calif., about 400,000, or 10 percent of the county population, are Medicare recipients. And in the county, five people turn 60 every hour. In 27 years, 20 percent of the U.S. population will be 65 or older.

She begins the exercises by having each of us write down five things we hold most dear on five separate pieces of paper. She has us hold them over our heads before walking past and ripping one from our hands. I lose “children.”

“How did it feel?” she asks. “There are those in this county who lose all five for real and in a short period of time. These things are going to happen. There is no way around it. Think about this when you communicate with an older person.”

We are then instructed to open a small blue bag. Each one has a small label. Mine says “painful feet.” I got off easy, it turned out.

Seated next to me is Scott Peotter, field representative for Assemblyman Allan Mansoor, R-Costa Mesa, Calif. His bag tag reads “stroke.” Inside his bag is a long elastic bandage and he must tie his left arm to his body to disable it.

I simply have to pour popcorn seeds into both of my shoes. In truth, it didn’t feel so bad.

We are told to put earplugs into our ears, and are handed a bag of potato chips to eat. Lauder begins speaking. We can hear nothing but the chips. Loss of hearing, she tells us.

There were exercises with cardboard glasses like the kind they used to give out at 3-D movies. One was yellow, another spotted, still another so hazy you could barely see through them. Eyesight of the elderly.

“Some elderly people simply cannot see the wrinkles in their clothing,” she said. “They can’t see the stains, the pattern differences, the things we make judgments and assumptions about them that they honestly cannot know about.

“Someday, someone,” Lauder said, “will be making the same assumptions about you.”

It went on like this for two hours. It was the last glasses exercise, though, that really got to me.

We have all seen the elderly walking down the street. We have seen them hunched over, walking and bobbing slowly as they go. I always assumed that, well, that is just what old people do. I missed something crucial.

They are looking hard for things lying on that same sidewalk. They are trying to judge the depth of the curb. They are, more than anything, trying to avoid anything that will make them fall down, which I learned on this day is the one thing that ultimately kills many elderly people.

“This has been all about how we treat people,” Jacque Lauder said when we finished. “It’s about you. What can you do to change how you deal with the elderly? It’s also about your future.”

Hence my confession.

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