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Research into ‘senior living’ requires a translation of ‘Gerispeak’

GRAHAM ROUMIEU/The Globe and Mail

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As I move reluctantly and acidly through the golden years, I continue to follow the prudent policies of my life and make plans and preparations. Lately, this has involved research into the options for "senior living."

It has been an enlightening and frightening experience – frightening mostly because of the gap that yawns between the promotion and the reality, between young and old, sellers and buyers, those coming and those going – and between words. Especially between words.

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Since I am 85, I have a number of contemporaries who already live in what one of the less enthusiastic of them calls "geriatric captivity." But then, she is a serial escapee. The others seem to have moved from rebellion to reluctance, then relief – or perhaps resignation.

I visit, listen, watch and take away impressions of this world. Notices in the elevator, sometimes with spelling and syntactic errors red-penciled by a retired English teacher, offer activities for the week: Saturday, a visit from some bell-ringers; Sunday afternoon, a screening of the 1951 film An American in Paris; Tuesday, a tour of the Edmonton Waste Management Centre ("return bus trip, two hours"). The "return" is reassuring.

The surroundings are usually reminiscent of a hotel furnished by the Bombay Company. I think it's the chandeliers that bother me most. High up in the wide, wheelchair-accessible entrance halls, the dazzling (faux) crystal glitters down on (real) human beings who sit, small and expectant, among looming vases of plastic hydrangeas.

I hear benign "continuing care" pronouncements from the Alberta government on the advantages of "aging in place" – i.e. at home. These paint a picture of cozy entrenchment in familiar surroundings: I'd be sitting in a decrepit chintz armchair with an aging cat on my knee, chatting with a brisk and pleasant person bustling about to see to my daily needs.

The reality turns out to involve cursory and pragmatic visits from a shifting train of different, and possibly indifferent, carers.

Which brings me to my quarrel. Who thought up this term "carer" anyway? Words, words, words. They are the counterfeit currency of geriatric merchandising.

Depending on the depth of their pockets, old people (never, of course, so described) can choose from a whole range of Residences, Facilities, Life Centres, Environments, Communities, Villages, Lodges, Places and Estates.

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My Dumfries grandmother would have called them "old people's homes" or, on one of her dour days, "the Workhouse," in which we would all eventually wind up because of our heedless extravagances.

Flipping through glossy brochures that show beaming residents at seated yoga or playing pinochle, I see that levels of care come with shifting titles and descriptors: Independent Living, Assisted Living, Supportive Living, Enhanced Care, Congregate Care and Rejuvenation Plus. You have to admire the bravado of that last one.

Then there are the names of residences. At some point, a bunch of commercial branding agents must have sat around a table and dreamed up attractive possibilities.

"Okay, guys, let's come up with something cheerful, optimistic – Sunnydale, Pleasantville, Staywell? Or something classy, vaguely aristocratic – Heritage Manor, Holyrood Court? Or bucolic and faintly English – Rosebank Village, Devonshire Gardens? They like that, the old folks."

Still, one can hardly expect anything more honest from salesmen.

Recently, I found a brochure that proudly offers a "new language" for talking about what it proffers to seniors. I'd like to believe it was a shot at Orwellian satire, but I'm afraid most merchandisers are irony-impaired.

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Here's my translation:

Being over 80 Years Young (old) and having decided on a Life Centre (seniors' home), I will undergo a Wellness Planning Session (assessment) to discover which Personalized Wellness (care) Plan I'm fitted for. With any luck, if I can draw a clock face at 10 to 2 and name the Prime Minister, it won't yet be Memory Care in a Secured and Supportive Environment (locked Alzheimer's unit).

If accepted as a Member (resident), I need to check out the medical side. Perhaps I will need a Wellness Co-ordinator (nurse)? An In-house Physician (doctor)? A Medication Co-ordinator (pharmacist)?

What space can I afford? I should probably avoid the Assurance Program (life-lease purchase) and opt for renting my Home (apartment) or Master Suite (room).

I can enjoy food prepared by the Executive Chef (cook) in the Signature Dining Room (dining room) or the Fresh Café (cafeteria). Or there's always Room Service (meal delivery). The chef's excellent menu will necessitate participating in the Lifestyle Experience (exercise) after a consultation with the Activity Co-ordinator (programmer).

Having reached the predictable end of Enjoying Life Years (living), I will be awarded a comforting conclusion: Becoming an Angel (death).

George Orwell might have called it all Gerispeak. And, sadly, just as Winston Smith in 1984 finally came to believe in Big Brother, you will probably find me one day sitting patiently under the glitter of one of those chandeliers.

June Menzies lives in Edmonton.

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