“The way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test reality we must see it on the tight-rope. When the verities become acrobats, we can judge them.”
Renowned for his wit, Oscar Wilde wrote this in 1891 (interestingly, spoken by the “old gentleman of Treadley,” Mr. Erskine, in Wilde’s book The Picture of Dorian Gray)…at the time when “modernism” and the so-called “perfected methods of objective and reasoned scientific observation,” the great “reductionist” flower springing from the European Renaissance, was only just beginning to bloom.
Over the course of several years of research and reading, both within the gerontological literature and in related disciplines, I began to notice a curious trend. Writers would continuously use the word “paradox” in an attempt to encapsulate the various dilemmas of aging in our modern Western culture. I was also running into a lot of very real and challenging paradoxes in my work as a professional caregiver in elder community care settings. As one who has long held an interest in the educational process around aging, and as one who was taught to seek common threads by which the many and various perspectives on aging might be connected, this phenomenon caught my interest. First I made a list of keywords and other verbal cues that were synonymous with “paradox,” such as “dilemma,” “quandary,” “predicament,” “oxymoron,” “contradiction,” and terms like “Yet,” “On the other hand,” In spite of,” and the like. I have read fairly extensively in and around the gerontological literature keeping at least one eye out for such word ‘flags,’ and then began to list and categorize the many paradoxes I found using these flags…
There are paradoxes of many forms out there. Some are very fundamental to our perception of the universe, such as (speaking of quantum physics) the notion that light seems to be either a wave or a particle (but how can it be both?).
Another such example is the classic “Liar’s Paradox,” which begins with the statement, “This sentence is false.” If “This sentence is false” is true, then the sentence is false, which would in turn mean that it is actually true, but this would mean that it is false, and so on ad infinitum. Similarly, if “This sentence is false” is false, then the sentence is true, which would in turn mean that it is actually false, but this would mean that it is true, and so on ad infinitum.
These are both examples of paradoxes that do not have much practical impact on people’s day-to-day lives. Paradoxes in human aging, on the other hand, have enormous impact, and are usually judged to be negative; and so I wish to use the evaluation of these types of paradox as a learning device…thus at least beginning to cull something positive out of them. Please note that when I state what I believe is a paradox, this certainly does not certify it as such; it is simply my own opinion based on limited experience and observation, and fully open to debate! Also please note that although my ‘paradoxical observations’ may appear to be critical of those working in biomedicine, I do NOT intend that. I have the highest respect for all those who work in the helping professions. If anything, I am critical of the systems of elder care, not of those who work within them.
So to finally begin, here are a few of the most prevalent and striking paradoxes I have encountered in my aging studies and service within elder “care” communities. This is just a few out of dozens that I have noted over the years; and there’s more to follow in “Paradoxes part Two”:
1) Many times (too many to count) I have had elders express quite lucidly and directly to me that they wished they could ‘finally’ die. Some have even expressed this wish as they hungrily devoured the meal I carefully prepared for them. Is this a paradox?
2) As a paid, professional caregiver, I have been required to regularly dispense medications to elders who often vehemently oppose taking them, even after I remind them that their doctors have prescribed the meds, and they (or in some cases, their adult children) have previously agreed to take them. Paradox here? Similarly, many of the meds prescribed have harmful side effects, including permanent injury and/or premature death. More paradox?
3) Many folks in the medical eldercare community speak of wanting “culture change.” To my way of thinking, an important part of this change is to move beyond a biomedically dominant “declinist” model in community care, and toward a model that actually serves the whole person; body, mind, emotions, and spirituality. Yet the medical model persists, and few organizations, whether nonprofit or for-profit are employing professionals who can bring service to the non-physical needs of the elder. Does this appear to you as a paradox?
4) As already pointed out by Bill Thomas and many, many others, our society is rapidly aging. We have a federal law on the books that states it is illegal to discriminate in hiring based on a person’s age, provided they are over 18. Yet it is almost an established axiom that discrimination against older workers happens, and happens often. Paradox? What are the consequences for society, not only in terms of lost income but also the lost psychosocial benefits that come with elders being able to remain in the workplace? Can this law be enforced in a widespread way?
5) Here’s a deceptively simple one: Culture change aside for a moment, on a very basic level, can any full-time direct caregiver provide proper care when she/he cannot adequately care for her/his self? Is it possible to adequately care for one’s self (let alone one’s family) on $9-10/hr. in current day America? Do I smell another paradox?
I’ll end part One of the Paradox series here, and wait for your responses. Again, I am particularly interested in hearing from elders (like myself) but of course welcome all responses. And please remember I am interested mainly in the learning that comes from spirited debate and reader contributions…