Do Older People Have "Disabilities"?


Most people in North America over age 75 live with a disability (according to Statistics Canada and the US Census Bureau). Yet if you were to ask a group of them to raise their hand if they lived with a disability, very few of them would. My mother lives with such severe dementia that she resides in assisted living. Yet, if someone were to ask her if she were disabled, she would say something like this, "I'm not disabled. I'm just getting old." I suspect that the same would be true for the man who can no longer drive due to his macular degeneration and the woman who needs to use a walker ever since her stroke.

I've wondered why older people who have acquired disabilities through the slow process of aging rarely want to say that they have disabilities. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Stigma - The word "disabled" has a heavy stigma on it, especially for people who were born before World War II. Not that long ago, people with disabilities were isolated from society and sent to institutions as if they didn't belong. With that kind of baggage hanging on the word, little wonder that older people don't want to apply it to themselves.
  2. Denial - Who wants to admit to himself that he cannot do what he used to do? It's painful enough not to be able to dig a hole or clean the house or ride a motorcycle anymore. I would guess that older people do not want to add to this pain by labeling themselves as living with a disability.
  3. Identity - I heard a speaker recently who noted that people who acquire disabilities as children or youth typically will identify themselves as "disabled" because that disability is part of their identity. However, people who acquire disabilities gradually over a lifetime do not consider their disability to be part of their identity. They include in their identity things like being mothers and fathers, doctors and nurses, pastors, carpenters, and grandparents, but not disabled people. People may live with severe functional limitations but not self-identify as disabled because they don't think of their limitations as part of who they are. 

I'd love to hear what you think. Please let me know.

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Having a disability is complicated. Having to admit we need help when we used to be the helper is hard.
Some seniors I know do not want to admit their disabilities.
This makes things frustrating. For example, in our church services we have headsets that are for the hearing impaired to hear the service better. Almost all who complain they cannot hear the words will not even try the headset. It is light weight, easy to use (one dial) and works well -as I use it myself regularly.
Another example is refusal to use the elevator.
But it is not just seniors. Many younger members do not want to admit either.
One thing is that there seems to be a lot of shame attached to being 'out of order' physically or mentally; whether it is temporary or if we are chronically ill or disabled. Personally I don't have this anymore. I have had to accept my illnesses/disability in order to be a peaceful, functioning person.
My illnesses/disability are not a reflection of my worth as a person; they are just part of me. I am as valuable as any person God created.
I wonder if some of us believe we have to be strong, not complain, accept what God allows without complaint . . . and if we admit it or show it then we are not strong. Which makes us less than as a believer.
Of course loss of independance is a hard issue too and it is hard to face the pain of that.....
What can we do to help each other accept our illnesses and disabilities?

Having been side by side with my mom through the last 20 or more years of her "golden" years (she is 96), I can identify with all of the stigma and denial of being labeled as disabled on her behalf. I encourage people to look beyond her wheelchair and the confusion to who she is. As I continually have to remind mom that she is still a child of God and holds value in her identity in Christ, so do I need to gently remind others.

The need for assistance is a struggle that we have had to work with piece by piece. Isn't it funny how we have so many things to make our lives more convenient (remote controls, dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, little things on our key chains to lock and unlock our cars, automatic windows and doors, garage door openers - you get the point) and yet if using a hearing aid or a walker would make our lives easier...


What a great insight. I never thought about that before. We all use "accommodations" all the time, yet those accommodations that are used mostly by people with disabilities are the ones that carry the stigma.

Will a time come when people view these kinds of accommodations not with stigma but with appreciation? Already we consider eyeglasses sometimes as fashion accessories. See this article in Fast Company magazine for a glimpse (with a caution about some inappropriate language):