About a month ago, I was contacted by our university’s honors program and asked to do a program for something called “Pizza with a Prof.” The professor (in this case, me) gets to choose a topic to talk about while the students listen and eat pizza. I was assured the prof would get some pizza, too. And, hey, I rarely turn down free pizza–unless it’s from Domino’s.
I thought I’d talk about some of my favorite gerontology-related topics. And–time to get excited here, folks–I put together a short Powerpoint presentation complete with a few photos of some of my favorite people, Drs. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and Alois Alzheimer.
I chose a title for my presentation: “Nursing Homes, Dementia, Dying, and Other Non-Depressing Topics.”
For some odd reason, I thought this title would draw the interest of quite a few students. It would also show that I had a sense of humor. I anticipated that lots of students would sign up. I was wrong.
The presentation was scheduled for last Thursday. I received an email on Wednesday postponing it due to lack of interest. Only five people were planning to attend.
I had planned a presentation that broke college students could not be bribed into attending. I mean, college students love pizza. And not even the power of free pizza could get them to show up to listen to my presentation. Wrap your brain around that.
My gerontologist heart broke.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. My feelings weren’t hurt, and I didn’t take it personally. Maybe being confronted with one’s own aging process and mortality during lunch isn’t up everyone’s alley, even if the pizza is free.
My friend, Jessica, who coordinates the honors program, said maybe the day just didn’t work well for students. She said, “Your topic is awesome.” Of course, she’s one of my best friends. What is she supposed to say? Students don’t want to hear about death and nursing homes while they eat? That I only talk about totally depressing things?
I’m thinking a presentation titled “Cute Kittens and Funny Memes” might have garnered more interest. Or maybe a Powerpoint on the history of the Obama-Biden bromance.
My area of work as a gerontologist isn’t usually that interesting to people…until it’s really interesting (and relevant) to people. Dementia is boring. Dementia is sad. It’s something we don’t want to discuss. And then it all changes when someone we love has dementia. That’s when I get late night Facebook messages (which I don’t mind, by the way). That’s when people want to take me out for a glass of wine or a latte and talk dementia. Things become interesting when they matter to us. We care about issues when those issues impact us and the people that we care about.
Many of my college students are not comfortable with discussing death. I’d say it’s because they are 18 to 23 years old, but it’s not. I know people much older who are not comfortable with the topic of death. When I do presentations and cover issues related to dying, I see a certain percentage of my audience become visibly uncomfortable. Over time, I’ve learned to become comfortable with their discomfort.
I once had a lady tell me that the information I discussed on end of life issues was useful, but it was just too early in the day to think about such things. She recommended I not talk about death before 3 pm. I told her I’d take that under consideration. (In my defense, I was speaking at a “Families and End of Life” symposium that she had registered to attend.)
Aging is a topic of irrelevance to many people because they cannot wrap their mind around the idea that they will someday be old. It’s not complicated–we all get older (unless we die, of course, which I think is way worse than getting old). However, it’s difficult for most of us to fully grasp that we may someday be the older person who is limited in movement or cognition. We might be the older person who lives at a memory care community, assisted living, or nursing home.
We relate to kids because we are all former kids. In fact, I once heard a six-year-old tell a four-year-old, “I know what you are going through. I used to be four years old.”
None of us are former old people–save those of you who might have been reincarnated. I know what it’s like to be 10, 16, and 19. I don’t know what it’s like to be 79, 86, or 90. Sometimes it’s easier to pretend I’ll never get there and live in denial of the aging process. (I should add that it’s easier to accept the aging process when I see older adults who are healthy and thriving. Although they are typically not my “target” population, there are a lot of them out there.)
As much as I talk about dementia…as much as I talk to people with dementia…as much as I talk to loved ones of people with dementia…I am in denial that I could at some point have dementia. Logically I know it could happen to me, but it won’t happen to me.
When I chat with someone who has dementia, I’d like to tell you that I’m empathetic because I know that someday I could be that person, but I don’t think I really know I could be that person. If I’m being completely honest, I think a little bit of denial is protective for me in this case. If it were constantly in the back of my mind that I could experience dementia, I’m not sure I could hang out with people who have dementia.
I know that the population of individuals with dementia is a population I could join at any point, but it’s just one of those things that won’t happen to me…even though I know it could happen to me. I push any thoughts of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Lewy-Body, or Frontotemporal dementia out of the realm of possibility, and I’m pretty effective at keeping those thoughts buried. I manage to think about dementia without constantly confronting the possibility that I could have dementia at some point.
I can’t judge college students for not wanting be in an environment that forces them to confront death and dementia. I don’t want to confront my own death and potential dementia either. I’m just really good at pushing it out of my mind at will.
My presentation has been rescheduled for this Wednesday. Maybe the last date happened to be a day that just didn’t work out with people’s schedules. Maybe the students planning the presentation didn’t do enough marketing the event. Or maybe I should change the title to “Who’s Going to Get the Final Rose on This Season of the Bachelor and Some Pics of Pug Puppies.”
And when they show up–BAM–switcharoo.
Nursing Homes, Dementia, Dying, and Other Non-Depressing Topics.
Let’s see how fast they can run carrying their free pizza.