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Front Porch: Struck dumb by being described geriatric

Sometimes it’s a little thing that can upend you. Sometimes a thing as small as a word.

When I was having a conversation in March with a nurse anesthetist prior to surgery to repair my right wrist, I told her about my sensitivity to certain types of anesthesia.

Early in her response, she said reassuringly “… when dealing with our geriatric patients, we …”

I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear the rest of that sentence, or, likely, paragraph.

Geriatric patient. Who, me?

It’s not that I don’t have a mirror or don’t understand that as a person who remembers when Eisenhower got elected president, I know I am well past my prime. Heck, I have sons who are middle-aged.

But geriatric … I wasn’t ready for that.

It hit me hard, especially in context with some other events of recent memory.

As I was pushing my cart toward my car in the Costco parking lot, a young woman walked by and said, “Here, let me help you load those.” True, I had a bad hip (hip replacement was a few weeks away), but no limp was visible. When I walk holding on to a cart, I’m gold. Spry even.

And I am not now nor ever have I been fragile-looking. Once 5’9” (probably a tad bit shorter now) and always residing in what could be called a sturdily proportioned frame, no one ever mistook me for a dainty flower.

But I do have to say, it was a little unsettling that I appeared to be in need of assistance that day. I like to think the parking lot woman just wanted to do a nice thing, and as I didn’t want to rain on her kindness, I said, “Sure, thank you.”

At another exchange with an even younger person, I made a remark that had an intended bit of humor to it. Her response: “Oh, you’re so cute!” And then she laughed and gave me the kind of smile you show when a small child does something adorable.

Also, not everyone with gray hair is hard of hearing, so stop talking so loud to me; it’s annoying.

Clearly, I have made my peace with the grumpy old woman persona. But the geriatric designation, not so much.

Why should it bother me?

I actually checked in with Dr. Google, who in his/her wisdom, acknowledged that the term can be considered offensive, as we often associate it with incapacity, things worn out, useless and worth less than other shiny and newer things.

The term geriatric automobile was given as an example – you know, a car that’s so old that it’s not worth putting more money into, as it’s going to give up the ghost shortly. Not in love with that comparison.

Now I understand it’s a useful metric in the medical field, where it refers to care and treatment of older people, where it appears that over 65 means elderly; over 75, geriatric. And I’m quite certain the nurse was speaking in clinical terms and meant no offense when she discussed anesthesia with me.

I think my main feeling is that of surprise. How did I get here?

A slow progression, sure, but it feels like suddenly, here I am. The smart aleck answer to the question is that I got here by not dying young. So, hooray for that.

I remember many years ago after my father died, when my mother was in her comparatively young middle 50s, how she bristled at the term “widow.” She hated the word. It made her feel lesser. No longer part of a pair, her whole world, including her social life, had down shifted. In addition to the emotional loss of her husband, she felt that the forward-moving, dynamic career woman that she was had been knee-capped and put into a category of Other or Peripheral-to-Main-Society.

Knowing her personality and background growing up in the South Bronx as a child of immigrant parents, I totally understood how a perceived change in status that came with the widow label meant what it did to her.

Having been struck down and incapacitated for a time in my 40s, the concept of geriatric as an old car resonates in a particular way for me. I am happy to have gotten to old age, but I remain uncomfortable with “geriatric.”

There is enough diminishment going on in the lives of those of us no longer young, middle-aged, at our peak, maturing gracefully, aging, ailing or what-have-you. I think we’re allowed to have our sensitivities.

But we do need to be gracious about them and not inflict them on others … except maybe one time in a newspaper column. And then move on.

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