The seniors column this week is disjoint and only peripherally related to computer technology. Today’s theme originated when the gods saw fit to cast great impediments in the path of Sherm’s family. Today was the birthday of one daughter and her daughter also (makes remembering dates easier). But that was offset on the same day by another daughter who was diagnosed a few days ago with cancer and went under the knife early this AM to excise it ASAP. Tests done so far indicate it had not metastasized, but we won’t know for sure until the clinical studies are complete. That, plus some other significant events, made me realize that I have been unconsciously avoiding a serious part of tutoring seniors – there is no subtle way to say this, they are old and get sick and die.

Seniors, as a whole, experience medical difficulties and deaths of family and friends much more often than college-aged people. Students over eighty or so might joke about not buying green bananas anymore, but under the joke is a serious change in what is important to an aged person. Tutors in any field who are working with seniors will be more effective if they are aware of this reality. In this age, perfect strangers might avoid talking about their own mortality but be relatively open about their sex lives. (Or past sex lives as the case might be. Those of you who have experienced prostate problems know that castration is one of the under-discussed unpleasantries that can accompany this problem.)

Talking about one’s diminished life expectancy is something that seniors will share with each other more readily than with younger people. I’ve been in houses working with a senior where younger relatives were obviously uncomfortable with the illnesses and probable consequences. The result is that they shut off communication and tried to pretend life goes on forever. They even went so far as to gently ridicule the senior for dwelling on sad things. “Don’t be morbid – you are going to be okay.” Denial is more important to younger people than to seniors. The younger people simply feel uncomfortable facing reminders of their own inevitable march of life.

Things need not be like that. I get great pleasure from helping older people learn the techniques of Internet searching and proper email protocols. If they are having trouble typing because of arthritis, that is just another issue to deal with – no biggie. The total time my students will have available to use their new skills is certainly less than that of a typical college student. So what? Does that mean we should simply stop learning as we achieve senior status? I think not.

A tutor need not dwell on any aspect of the student’s life beyond what is necessary to be effective in helping a student to learn the subject. And because of the various sensitivities in our culture (yes, this is an artificial cultural thing), I do not recommend introducing subjects of disease, aging, and death during a lesson, but if a student introduces them and wants to communicate, then an effective tutor is prepared to engage the subjects without being either patronizing or evasive. I suppose it helps to be a senior yourself and have some of the complaints the student speaks of.

But as logical as we try to be, basic humanity is often stubbornly non-logical. I can accept the fact that some of my senior friends are on chemo and radiation therapy and that it is not working well. That comes with the territory. But parents should not have to bury their children, and I was really caught off guard by my own response to our daughter’s life-threatening event. It was an eye-opener for me. Maybe if we all look at ourselves closely when we have an emotional response to unexpected situations, we can learn better how to relate to others.

What special events have helped you overcome denial and accept life? Or are you still in denial?

Click here to read about my new tutorial on helping seniors. The new version has grown considerably over the original. It has more topics and anecdotes, and fewer typos. While you’re at it, check out my expanded tutorial on decision theory.

[tags]life,logic,cancer,death,aging,uncomfortable subject,denial,emotion,chemo,radiation therapy,life expectancy[/tags]