I was thinking a bit about my father on this Father's Day – this post is not about nature or photography. I want to talk a bit about how we treat the elderly and especially people with Parkinson's disease because this has been something so close to me. Today, people are living longer and the elderly, such as my dad, are a much more common part of our world. When I was growing up, you rarely saw elderly people compared to now. Truthfully, they scared me anyway. I think that was and is part of our unwillingness to deal with aging.
My dad died about a year and a half ago essentially from complications from Parkinson's disease. My father-in-law has Parkinson's disease. My sister has lived with the disease for a while, having early-onset Parkinson's disease like Michael J. Fox.
Most people who have not experienced friends or relatives with the disease think that it means tremors. That is definitely a very visible expression of the disease and is noticeable in Fox. But that is not the disease, only one manifestation of it. Not everyone that has Parkinson's disease has tremors, either.
Now here's the Catch 22 – medication can control the tremors. That's good for the person with Parkinson's, but once they are gone, people think the vicim of the disease is fine. The tremors are annoying, but most who have the disease will tell you they are the least bothersome of the symptoms.
When Parkinson's disease does not "show off" with tremors, it is easy to dismiss the challenges people face when they have it. There are some things that give the disease away to people who know it, such as a certain way of moving, but you really have to know what to look for. My wife and I, for example, recognized it in the CBS reporter Bill Geist, before he publicly revealed he had the disease, and few people knew before he did that.
So if tremors are not there, is easy to attribute a person's slowness, especially the elderly, to just not getting enough exercise, their wariness of going out in public to just being stubborn old people, their problems with travel to just not taking medication properly, and even worse, doctors writing off these people with, "Well, they are old and they have Parkinson's disease, so we can't do anything."
We all admire Olympic athletes for their dedication to becoming the best athlete they can be. We are amazed at the amount of work they do every day to hone their muscles into superb, fit, highly responsive bodies that can achieve outstanding results.
I admire every sufferer of Parkinson's disease for similar reasons. In Parkinson's disease, the muscles of the body quit cooperating the way they are supposed to. The person with the disease must then fight that body, those muscles all day, every day. They are working really hard to do that. They have no choice but to work hard every day, every hour to just make their muscles do what they are supposed to do. People like my dad, my father-in-law and my sister are doing this internally with little showing on the outside except that they are actually able to function.
My sister tells it this way, "I can still do many of the things I did before, but at a slower speed and with a lot more effort….I compare it to walking across a field. Once that was a task which was almost effortless, without much thought. Now it feels like I am walking through wet cement , wearing heavy boots – I can still make it across the field, but it is a whole different experience."
This can be exhausting, both mentally and physically. No one would complain that an Olympic athlete was tired or not as responsive after a tough workout, yet friends and relatives do that all the time with those who have Parkinson's disease, even though the Parkinson's disease has forced them to have an intense physical and mental struggle that never ends.
I have seen how the elderly with this disease will then retreat a bit inward. This is hard work and they don't want to fight with a world around them that expects them to be different than they are. I saw my dad get upset with things happening around him but then not engage with that because he just did not have the energy to do so. This was a man who was an executive at a large corporation who had no trouble engaging with all sorts of challenges before he retired and before Parkinson's disease.
I think people remember what a person was like before Parkinson's disease and expect them to be the same as they age. Then when they are not that way, even friends and family get upset with them because these "old people" are just "being difficult." They aren't being like they used to be.
But they can't be. Parkinson's disease takes a terrible toll on anyone who has the disease. Medication can help, especially for younger sufferers like my sister, but this can be more difficult for the elderly.
A big problem comes from doctors. For many reasons, folks of my parents' generation feel they must be loyal to their doctor of many years. But a big problem is that treating the elderly, especially those with Parkinson's disease, is not "usual medicine." My dad got better, and actually amazing, care when he changed to a doctor who specialized in gerontology.
My dad had an eye doctor who wouldn't treat his cataracts because he was "old and had Parkinson's disease." My mom and dad were so loyal to this doctor that they would not change. Finally my wife (who is in the eye care part of the medical profession) and my sister convinced him that not being able to see was not okay, regardless of loyalties to the doctor. He went to another doctor who saw him differently and then had cataract surgery. He could see again!
Just because someone is elderly and does not have a long life ahead of them does not mean they deserve to be treated badly. It didn't matter if my dad could see better for a couple of years, a few months, or whatever, before he passed away. It did matter that he could see and that the quality of his life was as good as possible for whatever time he had left.
So on this Father's Day, I am making a plea that we all become more sensitive and more aware of the elderly around us, our fathers, mothers, relatives, friends, everyone who has aged. We will all hopefully be there someday, too. But I am guilty, too, of not truly seeing and respecting our elders as they are. I believe we need to accept them and their aging however it is expressed in their lives and give them the chance to live the best life they can. They deserve it. They have lived a life of many things, no matter how it was lived, and they may be fighting things we can only imagine, such as Parkinson's disease.