Frequently when young people see me walk with a cane, they treat me like I am a really old person – which was weird when it happened in my 30’s and 40’s, when I looked like I was in my 20’s and 30’s. There is a bit of a differentiation between being treated like you are handicapped and being treated like you are old.
People treating you like you are handicapped can vary from the obsequious hand-wringing over whether you’re going to trip, do you need someone to help you get across the room, “let’s put you in a wheelchair accessible room” at hotels, even when you don’t have a wheelchair, to the much-appreciated simple query regarding whether you need a little assistance, there’s an elevator around the corner, and/or can you manage a few stairs. But being treated like you are old means that when you are out with someone, you are always handed the check (even with your husband). It means that wait people speak to you as if you might not be able to understand, speak louder because you might be hard of hearing, and, apparently the way they talk to Grandma on holidays, “Now, are you OK sitting here?” (“You aren’t going to keel over or something?”)
The first time this happened to me, when I went to the restroom I took a really good look at myself in the mirror. I decided that although I might look a little tired, I did not look elderly; it must be the cane.
I didn’t use any assistive devices from age six until age twenty-eight, when I picked up a cane at a flea market and decided that it helped me to be less fatigued. It was so hip looking – a little old tree branch with an antler handle – that I thought it enhanced my appearance more than it aged me. I don’t know how long I was under that delusion but it was pleasant.
Recently, I went into a hair salon to buy several products. I had found a parking space just a couple of doors away so I was only using my cane and not a crutch (or two). It’s very difficult to carry a bag when using two crutches of any type.
A new clerk at the salon, who looked to be only about 10-15 years younger than me, was hanging about me making sure I could find my products. OK, over-serving is all right. But then she said, “Are you still driving, dear?” I was stunned. I looked at her and replied, “Yes… I had polio.” By which I meant, but did not say, “I’m not THAT old, DEAR. I’m not a decrepit old lady who can’t drive anymore. I’m only about ten years older than you, DEAR.” Then she wanted to know if I wanted help to my car. I was happy to let her carry the bag, a little heavy, but only perhaps five pounds. Then of course she saw me climb into my Lexus hybrid SUV. Not a little old lady’s car. But it did throw me to be treated as if I were an ancient lady from County Clare, just come in to the village for her monthly shopping because my son had moved away and I had no one. (You see where I get creative in this.)
I’m telling you, it’s the cane.