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Age Friendly Communities

Growing older in a society that is not inclusive and supportive of the differing needs of those whose abilities have changed can often bring about shame and humiliation. Not being able to read a menu, hear what a waiter says, figure out the digital screen in the bank, hear what the electronic voice says at the call centre, figure out the online visa application, switch to a new phone…the list is endless. We live in a society that is geared towards God knows whom – people who are super fast at crossing a street, techno-savvy, have perfect sight and hearing and are ultra clever at figuring out the digital washing machine. (I recently got a new washing machine and COULD NOT for the life of me get the bloody thing to wash. It took me literally hours before I gave up, feeling like a total idiot!)

The list of challenges might sound simple, yet in a fast-moving world where people are not very patient, older people and people with different abilities are often left behind feeling inadequate, ashamed of not being able to figure things out, exhausted from trying to pretend that they are on top of things, and embarrassed to have to ask.

Being hard of hearing is a reality for many – at R20 000 for a little hearing aid many people simply cannot afford the luxury of it. This makes communicating really tricky – and often people think you are just stupid.

Last week I was at a conference at a super smart venue where I parked my car in the parking garage. The minute I got out of my car I bumped into some people I knew and have not seen for some time. We chatted, got into the lift and arrived at our destination. Of course – when I needed to find my car at the end of the day I had no idea where I left it. I walked up and down clicking the key hoping to see the ashing lights. (Sadly my car does not bleep…) My own fault that one – however it just made me aware again of the challenges faced by people who find the world a difficult place to navigate, and the insecurity, shame, humiliation and vulnerability that ensues. Do I go and ask someone in the control room? Nope. (I know they will ask for my registration number. ‘Nough said…)

We often blame the feelings of being lost or “wandering” on the disease when people are living with cognitive impairment. We get SO frustrated when our older parents would rather stay at home than go out. When we explain over and over how the new Smartphone works and they keep on sending empty WhatsApps.

Seldom do we blame the environment or take into consideration just how challenging it must be to navigate some things.

How do we even start to create a more inclusive, supportive environment? Can we actually slow down, be more present, speak in a more articulated manner, and wait for them to figure it out? (I see that my Mom battles with the STUPID little mini jam packages in a restaurant – do I take it and do it for her or do I leave her to do it at her own pace? Do I read the menu to her and tell her what she would like to make quickly while the waiter is looking around anxiously, or do I ask him to come back a few minutes later?) The simplest questions – but what is the message that we send with “here, let me do it?”. “She would like…” or often “Wait in the car, I will run in quickly!”.

Our world has become a disabling one that is simply no longer user-friendly for the majority of people. What is considered “normal” is either too high, too soft, too loud, too complicated, too fast, or too slow for millions of people who then give up, withdraw and become sidelined.

I will leave the lecture on vulnerability to Brené Brown. But next time you cannot find your car in the airport parking garage or you battle to figure out the instructions of a new device, think how it must feel when your entire life consists of being made to feel stupid or too slow, and what it will do to your sense of Self.

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