Infantilization of seniors

Perhaps because I’ve reached an age where I might be considered a senior my own self, I’m becoming increasingly annoyed by the way public health advisors infantilize seniors.

It’s most obvious with fall risk, where “don’t fall” not only is repeated constantly, it almost always comes with a particular sort of blame-the-victim advice—remove tripping hazards, wear supportive shoes, be careful on wet or icy surfaces, always use your assistive devices (canes, walkers, etc.)—the implication being that if you fall it’s your fault for not having made your environment sufficiently fall-proof.

This advice is not merely useless or insulting; it is actively harmful.

It’s harmful first of all because it conflates “senior” with “frail” in a way that will inevitably lead the public to harass seniors just like the public feels free to harass fat people, smokers, pregnant women (especially those with the temerity to drink alcohol), or anyone who isn’t conforming with whatever the current public health fashion is.

Inevitably too, it will have that effect in the minds of seniors who will start to think of themselves as frail simply because everybody says so.

More to the point, it’s is precisely backwards for what you want if your goal is (as I think it should be) to prevent frailty.

  • Wrong: Remove tripping hazards. Right: Use pillows, empty boxes, rocks, sticks, 2x4s, and whatever else you have handy to make a little obstacle course on which you can practice navigating tripping hazards.
  • Wrong: Wear supportive shoes. Right: Wear the least supportive shoes you can handle and do foot exercises to gradually strengthen your feet.
  • Wrong: Be careful on slippery surfaces. Right: Pay attention to the surfaces you’re walking on and exercise due care on all of them.
  • Wrong: Always use your assistive devices. Right: Work with a physical therapist if necessary, and then do exercises to make yourself strong enough to obviate the need for an assistive device.

This is perhaps not as harmful as the infantalization of children and youth, which works extra harm because adults have more power to impose their conditions on children, whereas seniors mostly have enough autonomy to ignore inappropriate advice. But it hurts seniors in exactly the same way it hurts children, reducing their ability to become or remain robust actors in the wide world.

Now, I don’t want to fall into reverse-blaming the victim. If you are frail, then taking steps to reduce the risk of injury just makes good sense. My go-to activities to prevent frailty might well put an already frail person at serious risk.

I use the weir across the little creek behind Winfield Village for balance practice, when it’s dry and clear of debris.

I try to resist the urge to suggest to seniors that they should do hazardous activities in the name of preventing frailty. But the advice I see from professionals (and random strangers) goes too far in the other direction. Following it is going to doom already frail people to becoming steadily more frail.