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A Generational Look at Disability

by Emily Strand, VAN Program Specialist

In 1998, at age 17, Barbara finally found out why her body was constantly injured. She and her family had puzzled through a childhood and adolescence filled with myriad diagnoses, ranging from sprains to her back, tendonitis in her feet and elbows, and a constantly fractured wrist. When the doctors diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis (RA), her family finally breathed a sigh of relief; at least they had an explanation for her injuries.

Because she grew up at a time before the medical community made an effort to increase public awareness of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, Barbara’s difficulties were a bit of a mystery to the people around her. When she finally received her diagnosis of RA, she and her family had to accept that the disease would alter her options and that she would live with a disabling disease for her entire life.

Research has not found the cause of this autoimmune disease. People familiar with RA know that a potential does exist for remission, but unfortunately for Barbara, she has never experienced the relief that a remission provides. With a complete shoulder replacement already under her belt, she faces at least two additional surgeries in her near future.

Her strength and chameleon-like ability to change her life to meet the challenges of this disease never cease to amaze her family. Her adaptability has often made them wonder how people, whether young or old, adjust to living with a disability.

Does the age of a person when the disability arises affect the person’s acceptance of the disability? In her article “Adjusting to Early- and Late- Onset Disability: A Personal Perspective” published in Generations, Jean B. Zink suggests that age affects both acceptance and adaptability. Zink herself suffered from paralysis at age 16 after contracting polio, and in her article, she compares her experience to that of Bill, a man whose paraplegia was the result of a construction accident in his mid-forties. The onset of disability occurred at two very different ages, and as Zink notes, the age of onset resulted in two very different levels of acceptance.

Disability robbed Jean Zink of her youth, but she still had a future before her. In talking about Bill, she said, “He yearns for the past; I prayed for a future.” Jean was able to accept her disability because she wanted a future. Bill struggled to accept his disability because he grieved for his able-bodied past. “The immediate and observable difference between Bill and me was that Bill was laboriously propelling his own wheelchair. I was accepting help in difficult spots over rugs and up ramps. For me, conserving my energy is paramount. For Bill, accepting no help is essential, a very common response for newly disabled people.” No doubt, Bill’s adjustment to life with a disability will continue to be very different from Jean’s.

With the large number of boomers reaching an age when disabilities are more likely to occur, it is interesting to contemplate how they will adapt as they face those disabilities. A New York Times blogger, Paula Span, addressed this issue in her The New Old Age Blog, in a entry titled, “Will Boomers Be Any Different?” She indicates that boomers historically have paved their own ways. As a generation, boomers have had fewer children and are less likely to be married compared to their parents’ generation. When faced with disabilities, boomers likely will look beyond their immediate families for help out of necessity, a result of decreasing family size in their lifetimes.

Luckily, many boomers have the resources to pay for the services they need. According to Sandra Timmermann, director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute, “Based on the data we have, boomers as a group are better off than their parents were at the age of retirement, even with the recession.”

So, is it safe to assume that boomers will be more willing and able to adapt to disabilities? No one knows for sure, but many people think so. Boomers are adaptive, and as group, tend to defy the norm. As Matt Thornhill, a boomer and president of the Boomer Project, a market research firm in Richmond, Virginia said to Span, “[The boomers have] always been so adaptive. Life for us has been change.” So perhaps the boomers will pave a new path in accepting late-onset disability. If boomers want advice on how to adjust to a disability, however, Barbara’s family would suggest they take their lead from her, a Gen Xer.

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