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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.