If you follow the TV show “Mad Men,” you’ll know that darkly-complex main character Don Draper just had his 40th birthday. It is the summer of 1966. Which means if Don Draper was a real person, and if all the smoking and drinking hadn’t already taken its toll, he would be 86 years old this summer.
At age 86 there might be little to remind us of the handsome womanizer who turned heads everywhere he went. At age 86 he might be playing golf in Florida, but he also might have had a stroke and be struggling with garbled speech to speak to his caregivers at the nursing home, gesturing for a drink of water. Those caregivers would see only a shell of a man, would know nothing of the power he’d wielded on Madison Avenue, of his prowess with women. They would see him only as another wet bed to be changed, another bowel movement to be cleaned up, another patient who couldn’t bring his hand to his mouth and therefore needed more time than they could give to be fed his meals.
Or would they?
When I was a nursing student years ago, I was working a rotation in the county hospital where the poorest of local patients were sent to receive care. Conditions were abominable; the building was overrun with roaches, which were found in the drawers in the kitchen, in the burn treatment room, sometimes underneath the patients when we turned them in bed. The patients were unfailingly grateful for whatever care they received, but some were in such poor condition that it was hard to imagine what they’d been like when they were young and healthy, with everything in life ahead of them.
One day I was taking care of a gentleman who had been badly burned. He’d had a stroke that left him without feeling on the left side of his body. His wife had died recently and he was trying to take care of himself. He was trying to heat something on the stove when he must have brushed against the burner, as his shirt caught on fire, but because he had no sensation on the left side, he didn’t realize he was being burned at first. We were trying to help him heal with whirlpool treatments and a thick cream applied to his back. As I applied the cream, he spoke to me with a strong German accent, “I vant to show you diss…” and he reached in his bedside drawer and pulled out a picture of a dark-haired handsome young man standing with a beautiful blonde woman at his side, in front of a car. “Dis iss me, dis iss my vife…” he said. “Ve love to dance, ve danced every veek…” and over time, as I took care of him, he told me more about their story, and I began to think about him and his wife and their happy years, and I saw him differently. I began to see all my patients differently after that.
Would the nurses and nursing assistants take the time to learn more about Don Draper? Would they think of him as a person, not just a patient or a problem? I hope they would, because these patients were young once, and we’re all going get old; what will we be like at 86? How will we be perceived? How will we be treated if our mental faculties have deteriorated, if we are unable to dress and feed ourselves, if we are seen as an aggravation because of the amount of assistance we might need?
Don Draper is a fictional character, but he’s a case in point. What’s old was new, once upon a time. Remembering that can’t help but improve the way we perceive the elderly, and can’t help but improve patient care.