The other day, while approaching an airline check-in counter, the attendant smiled upon seeing River attached to my back.
“Why is it that when they are babies we think being toothless and hairless and helpless is cute, but we look at those differently when people are old?” she asked, bringing up a subject I’d been thinking about myself.
“I don’t know. Perhaps we need to change our perspective,” I said.
I think one reason people are more accepting of helplessness in babies than in the elderly is that with babies, the situation only gets better. Every day they learn and develop and pick up more and more skills and abilities along the way. There is also a pretty clear timeline. People can more or less expect that by a certain age, most babies will possess certain skills.
Whereas in the elderly, it goes in the opposite direction, with people losing capabilities with time and caregivers not knowing how long the decline will take.
Seeing River’s helplessness has made me remember that life is a continuum, that everyone will move up on the learning curve, stay steady, and then trend downwards. Of course everyone would like to maintain their abilities. But I don’t think we should look upon a lack of teeth, trouble eating, communicating, urinating or defecating among the elderly as gross things. But rather, a chance to provide that person with the care they probably bestowed on others during their lifetime. A chance to respect them for who they are and to help them to move through the last phase of life with dignity rather than embarrassment.