The Word I Made Up to Describe How I'm Treated as an Older Patient

Bruce Ballard
Bruce at a swimming competition (where all participants wore the same caps).

The one word that drives me up a wall is a word you’ve never heard. That’s because I made it up. The word is “senilicize.” If “infantilize” means “to reduce a person to the state or status of an infant” and/or “to treat a person like a child” (thanks, Wiktionary!), then “senilicize” means to treat a person as if they’re senile, old, feeble and decrepit. (I love Wiktionary’s definition for decrepit: “Weakened or worn out from age or wear.”)

I occasionally experience people treating me this way now that I’m 67 and 10 years into my Parkinson’s diagnosis, but I was already irked by the practice before that.

Let me give you a clear example. From 1994-1997, I lived in rural Japan, where I directed the English program for an American university’s branch campus. The campus was in a village on Japan’s western coast, but nearby were two small cities, Murakami and Shibata. Murakami had a competitive triathlon team that I joined, and Shibata had a road bike team, which I also joined. I was in my early 40s but had swum competitively as an adult in the United States, and I fit right in with both the triathlon team and the bike club. Bike from Japan’s west coast and over the Japan Alps to the east coast on a four-day weekend? No problem!

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During my second summer there, I started entering Olympic-length triathlons: 1.5 kilometers swim (about one mile), 40 kilometers bike, 10 kilometers run. When I arrived at my first triathlon, I learned that we’d be grouped by age and gender, and given different starting times and different-colored swim caps. It made sense as a few hundred people were competing, and the swimming course was narrow. If everyone started at the same moment, it would lead to mayhem.

Here’s how race officials grouped us:

1. The first group was for about 20 elite athletes. They wore gold caps.

2. The second group was for all females. They were given pink caps. (Yes, I know – sexist.)

3. The third group was for men under 30 years of age. Cap color: red.

4. The fourth group was for men aged 30-39. Cap color: green.

5. The final group was men 40 years or older. Cap color: (wait for it…) gray.

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It irked me that we were color-coded this way and that as a gray cap, I’d be starting my race after all the other groups were underway. The gold-capped elite swimmers had nobody in front of them, giving them an advantage. But for the rest of us, even though each group began a few minutes after the previous one, it indeed turned into mayhem as older contestants with strong swimming ability caught up to and tried to pass the younger swimmers who were slower. Thanks to the narrowness of the swimming course, for much of the race I was climbing over the bodies in front of me, getting kicked and elbowed in the face, and choking on the churning seawater. I passed green caps, red caps, and pink caps, but never caught up with the gold.

I was already sensitized to the way women experience discrimination — not only in Japan but across the world — but this was the first time I felt the brunt of ageism. Gray caps and last in line!

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Fast forward about 10 years to when I received my Parkinson’s diagnosis. I was living in suburban New York and still swimming competitively, and I worked out in my town pool and the local gym.

My doctor wrote a prescription for me to receive physical therapy for my Parkinson’s. Eager to get on top of this disease, I went to a huge physical therapy center which looked very similar to my regular gym: a few treadmills, some free weights and weight machines, some stretching mats. But there was one difference: there were chairs against all the walls.

On my first day there, a young intake manager briefly tested my strength, reflexes and balance, and wrote up a plan for me to use with one of the trainers whenever I visited. The trainers were all 20-somethings, and the clients were either high school or college athletes who were recovering from a sports injury, or people in their 50s and 60s who were receiving some kind of rehabilitation.

Here’s what I experienced:

First, whenever a client walked in the door, I noticed the staff trainers greeted the young clients differently than they did the older people like me. To the young clients, the banter was friendly, low-key and familiar: “Hey there, what’s up? How’s the leg? Let’s get started.” The tone was casual. It was like they were all buddies.

But when an older adult walked in, many of the trainers changed how they spoke. They raised their pitch and spoke the same way you might talk to a dog or an infant, with lots of rising intonation. “Oh, hello, Mrs. Jones. How are we feeling today? Good? That’s good! We’ll get started in a minute, but until then, why don’t you take it easy in that chair over there? OK? I’ll be right with you. OK?”

I rarely, if ever, saw a young client sitting in a chair against the wall, but the older clients sat when they first arrived and again at intervals during their visit.

Second, the staff, including the intake manager, grossly underestimated my strength and my general physical condition. For example, one of the exercises they had me do on the first day was wrist curls, where you lay your lower arm on a table and let your hand dangle over the edge. You grip a dumbbell in your hand and curl your wrist up, so your hand is level with the tabletop. The trainer handed me a two-pound dumbbell and told me to try raising it 10 times.

“Wait,” I said. “I do this same exercise at my regular gym, but I use 15-pound weights. Can I have something heavier?”

The trainer glanced at the clipboard she was carrying, which had the instructions for me from the intake interview. Then she looked at me and said, “My instructions are to give you a 2-pound dumbbell, so let’s use that. OK?”

I was miffed, but I was also determined to do whatever I needed to fight back against Parkinson’s, so I went along with what she wanted.

This scenario repeated itself with all the other exercises they had me do, every day I went there. And I was often told to “sit down and rest a bit” in one of the chairs lining the wall. I’d drive home wondering if these sessions were doing any good. How could I know? I was still a baby when it came to Parkinson’s disease.

Things came to a head a month or so later when I was there on a Saturday morning and was one of the only clients. At the end of my “workout,” I went over to the stretching mats and on my own started doing some yoga poses to stretch my muscles. Eventually, I got into the “standing tree” pose, where you balance on one foot, place the other foot into the opposite leg’s thigh, and stand tall and straight with your arms stretching above your head, hands clasped.

A manager (another young woman) came running out of her office, screaming, “Stop that right now!”

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“This is very dangerous. You could fall and hurt yourself!”

“But I do this all the time when I work out at home or in the gym.” Which is true. I can hold the pose for five minutes if I want.

“Well, you are not doing that here! I won’t allow it!” She was not using the standard baby-talk tone of voice with me, but she was still condescending.

So I took her words to heart: I left and never went back.

And now? In my continual quest to fight off Parkinson’s disease, I not only exercise at my regular gym, but once a week I work out with a personal trainer — a young guy who is always chipper as he pushes me to my limit. Typically, by the end of the first 10 minutes of our session, my T-shirt is drenched with sweat, and my breath is huffing and puffing. I wear a headband to keep the sweat from pouring down my face and stinging my eyes. By the end of the hour, everything I’m wearing is soaked with sweat, and I drive home in a state of bliss.

And on other days at the gym, I follow the advice I read from Davis Phinney about riding a stationary bike for an hour at a fast pace — in my case, I pedal at a cadence of 100 revolutions per minute. I have to wipe the bike off when I finish, and there’s often a puddle of sweat on the floor.

I am fortunate that I work at a school where everyone knows I have Parkinson’s disease, yet I still have a massive but enjoyable cartload of responsibilities. And I’m never going back to that physical therapy center again. If I encounter someone who tries to senilicize me as they did, I’ll run in the opposite direction.

Read more stories like this on The Mighty:

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How I’m Embracing My Parkinson’s Diagnosis as an Opportunity to Increase Awareness