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Forget the “F” word

The conversation was innocent enough. As I was scrolling through a few photos, I stopped and showed a friend the progress of my hair going grey. I smiled and bragged, “Look how far it’s grown out!” By the first part of April it was clear going to the beauty salon every five to six weeks to have my roots done wasn’t going to be an option. Also, like most things in life, I jumped in with both feet and decided to let my hair go, let my silvers sparkle, ditch the dye, go grey, whatever you want to call it. With the encouragement of my then 21-year old daughter, I decided to let my hair return to its natural color, and being 46 years old seemed like a good time for me.

So, I proudly showed my friend my progress, and her next comment made me pause. It actually made me think all weekend long. It was a Friday evening… She said, “I don’t like it, I don’t like it at all, it ages you.” My first instinct was to defend myself, explain why I was doing it, justify it. Or even offer, “It doesn’t look that bad.” Instead, I offered nothing and just thought about it. I thought about it a lot, and it became very clear to me, we have work to do.

It was subtle; she didn’t mean anything by it. She said, “You are too young to go grey. You are young and vibrant, and your grey makes you look older than you are.” The thought that kept floating around in my mind isn’t new or revolutionary by any means, but how we look at aging needs to change. In my field of long-term care, we talk a lot about ageism, and during the pandemic we talk about it even more. However, much more needs to happen if we truly want to change behavior and the perspective of growing older.

Not by my hair changing but by the pandemic time has shown a bright light on this accepted inequality, and because it’s so socially acceptable it may actually be one of the most understated, challenging inequalities ever. Unique to ageism, if we all get the opportunity, we will be on another side of this inequality sometime in our lifetime.

There are so many simple statements and impressions that we hear and see every day that reinforce our view on aging. Think about the jokes about getting older – the black balloons, the grim reaper on birthday cards, the anti-aging everything; there are so many images they have simply become a “normal” way of life.

The most offensive, accepted word in my opinion is facility. This “F” word has made me cringe for years. We hear it every day on the news, and it is also socially acceptable. Long-term care facilities account for such and such percentage of COVID-19 cases. Notice I purposely didn’t include numbers. We treat “facilities” across the country as a “place” for old people. When in reality places like Friendship Haven are much more than “facilities,” they are home. They aren’t homey, they aren’t home-like, they are home to everyone who lives and works here. Sure, there are bad apples just like with everything, but more of us are home than are not. I’m sure my colleagues will agree…we enter someone’s home every day. We just don’t come to work at a facility, there is a huge difference!

The pandemic, however, in many cases has lumped us all into the same “facility” lot. Have we truly considered what we have done to people in their own homes? Sure, they may have a neighbor across the hall rather than across the street, but it is still home. We have created a culture where treating people differently because of their age and their address is acceptable because, after all, they are old. We can and should do better. It starts with how we speak to and how we see each other. “Facility” is the worst “F” word; it implies institutionalization when we actually fight every day to offer home in spite of never-ending regulations and an attitude of safety verses choice. These factors impact our daily existence. We should be focused more on creating home and reminding everyone aging shouldn’t mean an end but an experience.

I’ll continue with my visual acceptance of aging with my slow-to-grow grey hair and cherish it as a daily reminder; growing older needs to be revered and respected, not feared and denied. As we come to the end of 2020, I’ve found speaking up and recognizing aging as a gift rather than a burden is a reason to celebrate; just another example of the silver lining during this pandemic.

Julie Thorson has served Friendship Haven as its President and CEO since 2012. She started with the life plan community that 360 people call home in 1999. The Fort Dodge Senior High graduate started her career in Broadcast news after attending Iowa Central College and The University of Kansas. Thorson is a coach’s daughter at heart started her career in long term care as a part-time nursing home social worker, she is now recognized as a leader in the field of long-term care.

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