Certain words can evoke powerful emotionally biased images, but our mental perceptions of these words are often far from their realities. For example, not long ago, we thought of people with special needs as “disabled,” thereby justifying how we maintained barriers that distanced ourselves from them. Labeling people as “disabled” masked their abilities, but today because of greater inclusion and a change in language to special needs, we’re all the much richer as a community.
Here’s another word than can evoke the kind of dread that often makes us erect emotional walls around people: cancer. Talk with people who have been diagnosed with cancer or some other life threatening disease, and you’ll often hear how their friends cease connecting with them. It’s as if the word “cancer” still conjures up a picture of an imminently terminally ill person lying in a hospital bed, even though that person may live a meaningful life for months and years. Our images of words lag behind their realities because of major changes in technology, medicine and societal values. And that’s equally true of the world “old.”
“Old”-frail, chronically ill, forgetful, dependent, disoriented and declining… sadly, that is experience of some of our elderly population. A line in a prominent prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur addresses this portion of the elderly population: “(God), do not cast us out when we are old, do not abandon us when our strength fails.” When you’ve lived a long life, it’s cruel to be metaphorically placed on a shelf and only dusted off from time to time like some museum relic.