My two favorite patient populations to work with have always been old people and children. Of course I have always loved interacting with kids, even when I was one myself. In some respects I still am one. It keeps me sane.
I was surprised when I started working with old people in my medical rotations to find that I really liked them. Perhaps they appeal to me because of their extreme vulnerability, which in America is often pretty great and is getting worse. Children are almost never left unprotected in the healthcare system. Old people very often are. If I can interact with an old person who feels abandoned, unvalued and unloved, and just for a few minutes or an hour or so I can listen to their story and let them know that they are still worth my time and patience, I like to think that I am fighting back against the hatred that society has for the ones who no longer make money.
But vulnerability is not the only reason they appeal to me. Underneath the vulnerability I see something else, which I am not sure how to describe. The only word I can think of is "rootedness." They are not less than the young patients, they are more. Old people have already become. I am explaining this very badly.
My fiancee and I agree that in general there are two kinds of old patients. There are terrible old patients and there are awesome old patients. There are no average old patients. (This is not including patients with dementia or Alzheimers or some other primary mind altering condition. They are a different story altogether.)
Once in the ER, on the exact same day on opposite sides of the hall I had two patients, both older gentleman, one in his late 60's the other in his early 80's. One had come in for a fall in his garage, and spent his whole visit complaining about how much pain he was in, and how terrible the service was, and how he had to tell his story so many times, all the while explaining how tough he was and what a high pain tolerance he had. I was examining him and he winced and screamed like I was stabbing him every time he saw me come near where the injuries were.
The other gentleman, the older one, had cut his leg with a chain saw a week prior and had calmly driven in to the hospital and gotten it stitched up (bad call on the part of whoever stitched it). Now it was closed, but there was a huge, angry, red abscess cooking in the wound pocket which had not been allowed to heal from the bottom up as it should. His whole front thigh was in pain, but he was sitting upright, quiet, patient, chatting and telling stories of his exploits and the strange things he saw back in the War. We squeezed every drop of pus out of that wound by force and then mashed on it until there was not one little pocket left undisturbed. He turned a few shades paler (he was a black gentleman) but then he looked at the huge glob of pus and clot we had expressed and jokingly asked whether he should give it a name.
Old patients are not less of anything than their younger counterparts.
They are always more. They are either courageous beyond belief, or whiny
beyond belief. They are either interesting in ways that no younger
person could ever be, or incredibly dull. They are either utterly loving
and self-giving, or they are exasperatingly selfish. The elderly
gentleman with no teeth, rheumy eyes and unsteady feet is still more
courteous and gentlemanly (and charming, my fiancee would say) than any
suave, cultured man of the world. The dirty old man is more lecherous
than any horny teenager would ever dare to be. That peaceful old lady
with the curly white perm is more completely unselfish in her every
thought than I have ever been at my most heroic. That other lady in room
three is more vocally and rudely inconsiderate than I have been since I
was a baby.
Perhaps my fiancee and I have this perspective because we see them under stress. The stress may reveal traits that do not show in day-to-day life. However, I think there is another reason. I think that old people live in extremes like that because they have spent their whole lives becoming that thing or the other. They have either been practicing strength and courage and courtesy and become very good at it, or they have been practicing weakness, manipulation and whining their whole lives and have gotten very good at that.
Whichever the case, it does not change how I treat them. If anything, I have to put more effort into the whiny patients. I don't know their whole life story (although I probably will if I don't watch out) and I don't know what they have been through. I don't know what they are afraid of. They probably don't know what they are afraid of, and if they have not faced up to it in the last 70 years or so, odds are they won't do it in the time they have left. I pray that they do, though. Even at the end of our lives, all of us are still becoming. Right up until the very end, change is still possible.
At any rate, it makes me take a good hard look at my life. I ask myself, what kind of old person am I becoming? Am I becoming a holy terror? Or am I becoming that awesome old dude who can crack jokes while getting an abscess drained without anesthetic? It is worth thinking about.