Health & Fitness

Note to servers: Talk to elderly people directly

"And what will she have?" the server asks. As an elderly woman sits in her wheelchair with family members nearby, the young server poses his question to her middle-aged daughter.

"What will she have?"

For some reason, many servers have decided that once a white-haired person with thick glasses and a hearing aid can no longer prance confidently into a restaurant, she or he is incapable of uttering "small sirloin and a baked potato, please."

It happens more than most people want to admit. For the wronged party, each incident further erodes an already fragile self-image.

Note to servers, clerks, and cashiers: Physical decline does not automatically consign mental acuity to the virtual trash bin. When taking an order or helping a customer, start by asking the older person directly how you can serve him or her. You'll know soon enough if you need to turn for help to another person in the party.

You can be sure that those of us whose physical impairments are easily observed have long battled the self-image deficit. It is especially onerous when the brain remains fully functional in an uncooperative body.

I was only 36 or 37 when I first experienced this rudeness. My post-polio limp was noticeable; so was my cane. As my young kids and I were shopping for fabrics, a mother and her 5-year-old a few feet away were watching. The little girl turned to Mom. "What's wrong with that lady?" The mother's too-audible reply: "She's old."

She's old? In her 30s? So she can't hear, either!

Sadly, there's another cast of victims in this scenario: those with dementia and Alzheimer's. One of my friends, quite aware he is in the early stages of Alzheimer's, suffers the emotional torture that ignorant strangers can so blithely inflict.

At this stage of his disease, my friend's only noticeable symptom is a kind of aphasia; he might choose the wrong word, leaving a wrong impression, or he may hit a verbal roadblock.

"It really hurt," he recalls, "when they rolled their eyes and twirled their finger toward my head."

The irony is that his memories of a remarkable career make listening to him a wonderful pastime.

Note to the world: Although the dementia patient might be blissfully unaware of his vacancy, it's more likely he knows he is fading and dreads being pitied, patronized or pointedly ignored.

The uncaring mother who pronounced me "old" missed a great teaching opportunity. She could have spoken softly to the child, telling her it's OK to wonder about people who are different, but it's best to talk about it privately to avoid hurt feelings. The time to teach is when the lesson is real, not theory.

I've never been offended by young children asking me about my cane, or later, my walker or chair. I will always take the time to give an age-appropriate explanation. Healthy curiosity helps them learn.

I wish I could say the same about the so-called adults who stare, snicker or make rude gestures.