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Help me work more effectively with old people
September 14, 2011 2:42 PM   Subscribe

How can I work more effectively, in an office environment, with people over 75?

I think it's precisely because I enjoy the company, socially, of older people, and I have a rather conservative demeanor, that I am frequently getting hired by older bosses. Of my 4 adult jobs, 3 have been supervised by people well over 75. (It may also be that there's a surplus of genuinely old people, 75-85, in nonprofit management, but that's another post.) But it's not always easy to work for someone 81 years old. How can I do better at it? Can anyone speak from experience?

I've repeated to myself that it is ALSO not okay to dislike working, say, for a person of a particular race. I don't want to be the kind of ageist who says, "oooh, I'm not even going on that interview, I can't work for another old lady, no, no, no."

I've also repeated to myself that old people (I don't mean 60) want to contribute to society, too, as is their RIGHT, and that I'll want to when I'm their age.

Here I'm not trying to be cute--it goes way beyond "doing things the old-fashioned way." Without resorting to clichés, I don't mind, say, a typewriter. Also, just for the record, my partner is almost 30 years older than me, and I'm 34, so when I say "old," I don't mean mid-career.

Any ideas to help me adjust my attitude? Thank you.
posted by skbw to Work & Money (33 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Can you give some examples of what kind of challenges or difficulties you're encountering?
posted by Lexica at 2:49 PM on September 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm not really clear about the ways in which your attitude needs to be adjusted. You enjoy the company of older people, they seem to respond well to you, and thus you end up working for them. Sounds like a decent arrangement.

It's not always easy to work for anybody. If anything, having worked for a few people of that particular age, you are the kind of person whose experience might be a good resource for others.

I've worked for a few elderly people, and fortunately they were the kind who were very candid about the ways in which they needed extra help, and were gracious about accepting that help. Mostly it helped me to remember that they simply had vastly different priorities than me, on any given day. The best thing you can do is listen and observe -- try to gauge the distance from how they wish to be perceived and how they really are, and then delicately do what you can to help them bridge that gap.

And always know what the weather forecast for the day is. They love that.
posted by hermitosis at 2:51 PM on September 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Try to distinguish between technical knowledge and intelligence. Creative intelligence is the same at thirty and at eighty, unless a disease has happened. Bright and spectacular ideas can come out of a ninety year old mind, and they are not necessarily old-fashioned ideas, especially if they relate to knowledge and understanding of human nature. tell yourself that patience is a virtue, but it does not come easy to the young.
posted by francesca too at 2:53 PM on September 14, 2011


You need to be a bit more specific about your difficulty in working with people of this age. Exactly what do you find difficult? Are they giving you no credit for your experience because you are not as old as they are? What is the problem?
posted by konig at 2:53 PM on September 14, 2011


What impresses me is the speed at which old people work. They want to see you keep up and not get distracted. If you can do that, they will be receptive to your doing things with computers etc. that they don't understand and oppose until they know you're not a flake. That's been my experience.
posted by michaelh at 2:54 PM on September 14, 2011


Nthing the request to clarify WHY you find it difficult to work for people of a certain age. Do you not like the kind of conversations they get into? Do they make you teach them how to use "The Interweb"? Do you think they work at a slower pace?

I'm not seeing what the issue is here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:01 PM on September 14, 2011


SON: old people have problems working with young ones. But we try and by golly (last time you heard that?) it evens out.
posted by Postroad at 3:20 PM on September 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Postroad, I hear you. (Last heard "by golly" from my mom, age 57.) Do you have any coping skills to suggest?

Gosh, yes, I do need to be more specific, but it's hard without saying things that, taken out of context, make me sound like a monster, or reflect badly on previous employers who are decent people.

So please, give me the benefit of the doubt here, as a person whose own blood relatives are still working in their mid-80s.

At a social service agency where I worked, I had many (let's say 7) colleagues between 75-85. With them we all absolutely loved when I would, say, give a computer lesson. In return they would, for example, bring me a piece of strudel.

But colleagues are very different from bosses. Say a medium-sized nonprofit has a budget of $700,000. If you speak frankly to someone over 80, many, not all, of them, will say that although they are NOT demented, they are maybe not as suited to be the person who pulls the trigger as they once were. For pull the trigger read any number of executive responsibilities.

Concrete example? (Believe it or not, this is not from today. Today's problems are more of the "I am not your housemaid" variety.) Say a person who has difficulty traveling assigns $40,000 to a neighborhood program that no longer exists. A 40-year-old with limited mobility might send someone out to visit the site if going personally was, for some reason, not an option. (If my leg hurts, I sometimes don't venture out myself.) But in my non-negligible experience, an 80-year-old is LESS LIKELY to send out someone to take a look.

A family business, take for instance my own family's, by definition has relatives around to give support, welcome or not, to a very old, 80+, CEO. But a nonprofit--HOPEFULLY--does not have a lot of relatives around, and it's not the private fortune of the CEO! It's the government's money, or that of private donors! Very often, the board has evolved in such a way that accountability is not what it could be.

One might say that mismanagement is mismanagement and I shouldn't get more bothered by the age factor. But here's an anecdote from my first job. About a week after I was hired, a noted person, let's call her a love therapist, named, shall we say, Dr. Esther, resigned from a board presidency (not even a CEO-ship) to devote more time to private practice. She was about 78 at the time. She said in her departure speech that no one should say that Esther Forchheimer didn't know when to call it a day.

The office--the super-old office I mention above--went wild. This is fantastic! they all said. What a class act! An example for us all! God willing when I go I'll do it the same way! At the time I thought, gee, it's good of Dr. Esther to give such a good speech, but doesn't everyone? Experience in nonprofits--I think there may be a paper here, but I'm not the one to write it--has proven this approach to be the exception, though.

I hope this helps. Thanks for the ideas and moral support!
posted by skbw at 3:33 PM on September 14, 2011


Clarification: I did not work for Dr. Esther's agency.
posted by skbw at 3:35 PM on September 14, 2011


Another clarification: when I'm quoting the hypothetical 80-year-old above who says she's NOT demented but doesn't feel like pulling the trigger, I am AGREEING with her that she isn't demented. That isn't the issue.
posted by skbw at 3:41 PM on September 14, 2011


I have only ever had much-older bosses and this is from my own experience and from my own research into effective office-working with highly experienced people:

1. Do not take their skills for granted. Seek out opportunities to learn from them and seek opportunities for them (and yourself) to address those who can learn from their experience.

2. Let them focus on what they do best. Extraneous issues can best be left to you or their assistant if they have one.

3. Give yourself time to work out what hours they really do the work. I have had older bosses who were in the office all day and into the night, but they really only worked in the morning and afternoon and spent the day in a kind of stasis where they were sitting waiting for something to happen or were focusing on a project they needed to finish where they could not be bothered. This shoe/drop mentality can be vexing to younger employees, because their work often follows what the boss wants. As a result of figuring out their time dynamics, you can learn to schedule meetings either early in the day to catch up on work they did at night or schedule a meeting at the end of the day to catch up on work they need completed by the end of the next working day (or the day after that).

4. Most people are not Dr. Esther. Most older senior staff will work at their same job until they either get incapacitated or are forced to leave. Don't try to suggest people do something else, that's poison for you.
posted by parmanparman at 3:46 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Parmanparman, let's you and I get some grant money and start causing trouble! We may even have a few good years left. It's good to hear from someone who's been there--though I am greatly reinforced by every single answer.
posted by skbw at 3:49 PM on September 14, 2011


May I point out that, of your four adult jobs, you've had three older bosses? So you might be inadvertently comparing three bosses (who happen to be older) to one, more effective boss (who happens to be younger), without realizing that age might not have anything to do with it.

I say this, because an unwillingness to take action on something does not necessarily correlate with advanced age, but here's something that does correlate: being a person of advanced age who happens to be unwilling to take action on something, and being a person who conveniently blames their advanced age for their unwillingness.

Start looking at your bosses as bosses rather than older bosses, and perhaps you'll see what I mean.
posted by davejay at 4:25 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm afraid I'm still not quite clear what your concerns are, so with your leave, I'm going to try to paraphrase what you said to make sure I understand what you were saying; if I'm wrong about any of them, please set me straight. (I just do this sometimes when I'm really not clear what someone is saying, is say it back to them in my own words.)

If you speak frankly to someone over 80, many, not all, of them, will say that although they are NOT demented, they are maybe not as suited to be the person who pulls the trigger as they once were. For pull the trigger read any number of executive responsibilities.

Paraphrase: You're concerned that maybe someone who's older may not be able to make decisions as quickly any more.

SOLUTION: It's a valid concern. The way to ease those concerns, maybe, is to check out the support staff -- see whether they've got a strong voice and are all smart themselves, because maybe the CEO is relying on the advisors to call a lot of the shots or to tell them "No, Sid, sorry, that idea won't work."

Say a person who has difficulty traveling assigns $40,000 to a neighborhood program that no longer exists. A 40-year-old with limited mobility might send someone out to visit the site if going personally was, for some reason, not an option. (If my leg hurts, I sometimes don't venture out myself.) But in my non-negligible experience, an 80-year-old is LESS LIKELY to send out someone to take a look.

Paraphrase: someone who's older may not be as likely to make personal visits to the "shop floor" to check out what's going on. (I admit I'm not sure where the "40-year-old with limited mobility" fits in.)

SOLUTION: Again, check out the advisors, and see what the support staff is doing. Maybe they're the ones doing this kind of thing.

A family business, take for instance my own family's, by definition has relatives around to give support, welcome or not, to a very old, 80+, CEO. But a nonprofit--HOPEFULLY--does not have a lot of relatives around, and it's not the private fortune of the CEO! It's the government's money, or that of private donors! Very often, the board has evolved in such a way that accountability is not what it could be.

Paraphrase: older managers of non-profits don't have as much of the same support as the CEO of a family businesss or a for-profit company, so their foibles may come clearer.

SOLUTION: Again, check out the rest of the staff. Sometimes the support staff can BECOME that family, if they're really invested in the business of the company. If everyone's really on the same team, and they're committed to the team, then they BECOME the family that takes care of the CEO.

Or, you could just not work for non-profits and stick to family businesses.

One might say that mismanagement is mismanagement and I shouldn't get more bothered by the age factor. But here's an anecdote from my first job. About a week after I was hired, a noted person, let's call her a love therapist, named, shall we say, Dr. Esther, resigned from a board presidency (not even a CEO-ship) to devote more time to private practice. She was about 78 at the time. She said in her departure speech that no one should say that Esther Forchheimer didn't know when to call it a day.

The office--the super-old office I mention above--went wild. This is fantastic! they all said. What a class act! An example for us all! God willing when I go I'll do it the same way! At the time I thought, gee, it's good of Dr. Esther to give such a good speech, but doesn't everyone? Experience in nonprofits--I think there may be a paper here, but I'm not the one to write it--has proven this approach to be the exception, though.


Paraphrase: ...Um, you're concerned that....an older person left at a time she felt comfortable leaving, and the other people in the office thought what she said was...awesome?

SOLUTION: Um...not really seeing the problem here, other than "someone said something at a retirement party that you thought was corny." Just smile and applaud politely in that case, and save it for telling your friends later over margaritas.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:54 PM on September 14, 2011


Don't mean to thread-sit! It's just that EmpressCallipygos' contributions are often very helpful and I don't want to be badly misconstrued before the discussion takes a wild turn.

First: no, I am saying that Dr. E. said a BRILLIANT thing that not everyone would be able to say or do. Not corny in the slightest. For example, it would be hard for me to say, "No, I really, really need a job, and I could teach high school math, but I'm not going to because there are better math teachers in the world."

Second: You say, "maybe the CEO is relying on the advisors to call a lot of the shots or to tell them 'No, Sid, sorry, that idea won't work,'" and "[if support staff are] committed to the team, then they BECOME the family that takes care of the CEO."

In a perfect world, Sid would take his advisors seriously, but it doesn't always happen that way. The problem is precisely when Sid does not take his advisors seriously.

Even IF support staff wanted to become like family--should they really, truly, at a place of work?--real family can't be fired, and support staff can.

Take my family business compare/contrast. Let's say, in the family business, Adult Son does something diametrically opposed to Father CEO's wishes in order to save Father CEO an embarrassment and a costly mistake. In the family business, Father CEO is livid and there is a chilly environment for even up to a year. But in a support-staff-as-family situation, that's someone's job, right there, boom!, their whole livelihood, and when Non-Father CEO cools off, the job is long gone.

Yes, a family member can be disowned, but the threshold of disowning is a LITTLE bit higher than a perfectly legitimate layoff offense in the regular world.

Work should obviously be important, but if you have to do the same things you'd do for your own father to keep a boss productive, then (a) that's maybe not so healthy, (b) will frequently result in job loss (yours), and (c) in the case of nonprofits, often involves a fair amount of tax dollars.

Thank you, though, for your perspective.
posted by skbw at 5:22 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Or, put another way--I don't mean to touch any nerves if you don't have a grandmother or never had that kind of relationship with her. Please forgive me in advance.

Say your grandmother is a real Class A matriarch. Most of us past, say, age 30, who were blessed to have a grandmother who did this kind of thing, can remember what it was like when we were 5, Grandma was 50, and she organized dinner and an evening of entertainment for 75 people. Purchasing, delegating, etc. Real duties that map pretty well to the kinds of things people do for money.

I was lucky to have a grandmother who still could get up and entertain 75 people at, literally, age 80. She did it multiple times a year, well past 80, and the events are famous ones. But was it the same logistically? For the guests? For the people helping her? For the ones living with her? Was the food the same? The timing? The cost? Lots of things were different--for Grandma herself, most of all.

When it's your grandma, none of the differences matter. But when it's a business, for profit or not, they do.
posted by skbw at 5:38 PM on September 14, 2011


*thinks*

This is going to sound weird, but hear me out.

I'm wondering if maybe what's going on is something different than what you think it is. What was making it difficult for me to understand what you're saying -- and I must confess, it's STILL kind of difficult -- is that you're putting so many disclaimers and explanations and here's-my-examples and such that...it's obscuring what you're trying to say.

And THAT has me maybe wondering if maybe the concerns you have are actually just regular garden-variety concerns that you'd have about anyone, except the fact that they happen to be about older people has you personally so freaked out that "omigod I'm ageist and I didn't even know it" that you're trying to justify your own complaints even to YOURSELF. And so you're doing all sorts of personal mental gymnastics not just to yourself, but to the rest of us, to convince us that no, really, you're not ageist, and this is totally not you thinking we should farm out old people and keep them from working because seriously you don't think that, and you like old people and they're nifty keen and really you're totally cool with them and you get along great with them -- but this one time a boss you had did thus-and-such BUT I'M COMPLAINING BECAUSE I'M AGEIST and...

Yeah.

It is okay for you to have concerns about a specific person's skillset, and it is okay for you to have found fault with a specific person's management style. It is even okay for you to blame that specific person's mismanagement on their age.

The ageism doesn't come in when you say "Dr. Ethel was so old she didn't see the point in sending visiting nurses out to investigate the problem.". The ageism comes in when you say "I don't want to work for a visiting nurse service any more becuase they're all run by old people who don't send nurses out."

So I would start by forgiving yourself for thinking that Dr. Ethel should have retired earlier because SHE was too old to run the business. Because that may have been a very valid observation, and it's okay to think that. But by forgiving yourself for thinking that, you will clear away your mind enough to be able to evaluate Mr. Cornswallop, Sr. on his own merits, and you may see that "oh, wait, Mr. Cornswallop may be the same age, but he's TOTALLY more with it and it's a totally different situation, so I have nothing to worry about."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:47 PM on September 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


I agree with EC in that I still am not sure what you're asking.

So.. what makes you think you are not effective enough?

Are you trying to make *them* more effective?

Do you keep talking about the family business example because your bosses are trying to treat you like a son/daughter? Do you find yourselves doing errands for them that you would never do for a younger boss?

Are you beginning to find old people really annoying and you need advice on that?

???
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 6:06 PM on September 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


REPHRASE:

How do I get through the day with someone who shows signs of cognitive and emotional changes that are probably age-related?

Everyone knows what "he's just slowing down" means when you talk about an 80-year-old man who's not your boss. Some 80-year-olds escape all of these. The average 80-year-old, though, deals with at least a few. Forgetfulness. Occasional confusion. Slowness or inaccuracy on certain cognitive tasks, say math in the head. Lack of physical stamina. Shortcuts to make things (say cooking) easier. Lack of familiarity with present-day behaviors in x area (in the modern workplace, this is no joke). More doctors' appointments and time missed for illness.

What do you do when this man IS your boss?

_________

I am at pains to lay out the grandmother example because it's very, very hard to argue that Thanksgiving is the same in every detail in 2010 as it was in 1980. In the business world, the customer is paying for homemade rolls and that, by God, is what he wants, no matter how many years go by. To say that there is no, or negligible, difference between the 1980 work product and the 2010 one strikes me as a little disingenuous.

(I reintroduced family business because EC says above that staff can be like family. I maintain that they should not be. Family: poor business model.)

parmanparman's comment has the kind of coping skills I'm looking for.

And yes, I do take every single new old person I encounter as a plain regular person with their own strengths and demerits. That's why I keep working for them.

Thank you, everyone, for the encouragement. This isn't just my rant--this will become a bigger issue in the workplace quite soon. I wouldn't be surprised if, for example, normal aging becomes an ADA issue. I pray to continue in good health so that I'm driving someone nuts when I'm 90!
posted by skbw at 6:35 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


It sounds like the core of your question is "how do I get through the day with someone who shows signs of cognitive and emotional changes that are probably age-related".

Watch and wait, and see if it gets to be a problem for your direct job -- in my case, it'd be if I had moved heaven and earth to arrange a meeting with someone, personally promising my boss would be there to receive so-and-so, and my boss just left early because he forgot; that makes me look bad for claiming he'd be there. When that kind of thing starts happening, then I'd talk to another manager about my concerns; most likely, I wouldn't have been the only one who noticed this kind of thing, and they may be collecting Evidence That He Should Leave. Until he does, though, just do your job the best you can, and look out for yourself a bit more than usual, is what I'd do.

(I only introduced the "family business model" because it sounded like you were saying there was a difference between family business and NON-family businesses, and that you were working for a NON-family one, but that a family one would be okay. I was suggesting a way around that. If that wasn't relevant to your point, then...I don't know.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:44 PM on September 14, 2011


Everyone knows what "he's just slowing down" means when you talk about an 80-year-old man who's not your boss. Some 80-year-olds escape all of these. The average 80-year-old, though, deals with at least a few. Forgetfulness. Occasional confusion. Slowness or inaccuracy on certain cognitive tasks, say math in the head. Lack of physical stamina. Shortcuts to make things (say cooking) easier. Lack of familiarity with present-day behaviors in x area (in the modern workplace, this is no joke). More doctors' appointments and time missed for illness.

What do you do when this man IS your boss?


Oh geez, most of the bosses I've worked for have had these issues and worse, and they were in their 30's. At least your boss has a biological reason and isn't just stupid. Deal with it the way you'd deal with the same issues in a 35 year old boss. No one is perfect, you just have to learn to work with them - or around them - anyway.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:30 PM on September 14, 2011


Oh geez, MY, have you ever worked for someone over 80? Do you perhaps have any hints to share? There's nothing different about working with someone who's slipping like an old person slips?

I've been dealing for years, thanks...that's why I'm here, to ask for situation-specific help.
posted by skbw at 8:47 PM on September 14, 2011


I've worked at two jobs where the owner/my boss was over 80, but they were not non-profits. I stayed at the one company for 11 years, even though the boss was often very obstinate and difficult. At the end of the day, though, unless he was in danger of physically hurting himself or others (for example, he had a habit of moving his space heater too close to the curtains and they caught fire once - which I put out in time, fortunately, but I never had the temerity to chastise him; I simply added "keep an eye on Ernie's space heater" to my daily "to do" list) it was his company and those of us who stayed there for any length of time played by his rules and just did our best to get along with him. It was hard to be patient with him many times, but patience is what worked best whenever he got confused or was being stubborn about something in which he was in the wrong (and he immediately bristled if someone confronted him abruptly or unkindly). So instead of saying in an exasperated tone "We go through this every day - Mexico is two hours behind us, it's too early to call!" I'd just look at my watch and lightly say "Oops, we'll have to wait a while - they're not in the office yet." He was really in no shape to go to various plants and watch steel as it was processed, so frequently I handled that. He also didn't "believe" in cell phones, so I had to find a payphone to stay in contact. A major pain, but you either roll with the punches or you find another job. Every time he gave me something to fax he'd admonish me "make a copy first!" because he thought the paper actually went somewhere, he didn't understand how fax machines worked. But I just said "OK" and left it at that. Sometimes it was akin to dealing with a young child, having to tell him the same things over and over and over for 11 years, but I always reminded myself that if I lived to be that age I would want people to treat me like I still had half a brain and not talk down to me or lose patience with me.

I don't know if these anecdotes are helpful to you at all, or if my boss' behavior is in any way similar to yours, but that was my experience.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:32 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've been in this situation for over a year now. The plus is that at 51 it's very nice to be considered the "bright young thing"!
But I do sympathise (my boss is in his 70s, but suffered a slight stroke a few years ago, that isn't referred to, before I started working there).
I think that basically what I do is help and mop up when it directly affects me or people/projects I really care about, and otherwise let him (gently) fall. But that might be what he's doing to me as well, since he's more experienced in the field than I am.
Patience, and respect for their strengths - we have a public event tonight, he'll MC it brilliantly, I'm sure I'll have to remind him (reassure him that what he thinks he remembers is correct?) about the people taking part today, as I did the day before yesterday. But now I can do that without getting panicky and resentful, because I know he'll be all right on the night, and will do a better job of it than me.
I have insisted on some manners re treating me as a secretary simply because he doesn't have a computer."Have you got time to send an email on my behalf?" is all I ask.
You've got me thinking a lot now about how the dynamic between us works. But I need to leave for work!
One final thought - I'm sure there's a huge difference between coming in to work with someone who is elderly, and seeing someone you've worked with for years becoming older and different. Coping strategies I'm sure would vary.
posted by sianifach at 12:57 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh geez, MY, have you ever worked for someone over 80? Do you perhaps have any hints to share?

Yes, I have actually been in the position of having 35 bosses (at the same time - it was an odd situation) who ranged in age from 70 to 97. And the best thing I did was treat them like anyone else. They were much more likely to listen to me when they knew that I wasn't treating them like a doddering old person. And if they didn't, I just chalked it up to the fact that unless you're your own boss, you'll always have to deal with things that aren't being done the way you think would be best.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:17 AM on September 15, 2011


35 bosses does indeed sound very intense! I think I've been living the "just treat them like everyone else" advice--this would be my whole career--but thank you for reiterating that it's the right thing to do.
posted by skbw at 9:14 AM on September 15, 2011


I say it with a smile, and it isn't directed at you, MY, because obviously you've worked for 35 older people, but it does remind me...

Say some white person asks for advice on how to get along better with his Black or Latino neighbors. Obviously, being a decent guy, he treats them as he would want to be treated. But is there maybe a book or something? Coexistence For Dummies?

He, too, would get a chorus of "what's wrong with you? Just act normal" replies...and some of the loudest could very well be from left-wing white people who have spent their whole lives in lily-white neighborhoods. So I especially value replies from people who've been there.
posted by skbw at 9:21 AM on September 15, 2011


skbw, you may not be aware of the fact that you're starting to come across as a bit...."doth protest too much".

You've gotten some good advice in here. Take a breath for a second and check it out.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:30 AM on September 15, 2011


Thanks for the tip.
posted by skbw at 9:33 AM on September 15, 2011


I work as an Admin Support person in a small company and the head of the company is only in his 60s, but is forgetful, repeats himself, etc. For me, what has to happen to keep him from screwing things up for all of us is that I have to take on his responsibilities as if they were my own. That is, he isn't going to remember to do things, go to appointments, whatever, so I have to keep track of them for him. When I put an appointment on his schedule, I e-mail him about it, put an extra task on his schedule to prepare for the appointment, remind him of the prep, then watch the clock and remind him of the appointment in time for him to get there. I function as his memory, basically (my boyfriend says I'm the "Radar" of the company). I used to talk to him much more about things, but these days I try to conduct conversations via e-mail, so that I have a record of what we talked about (I've gotten blamed for things he's forgotten in the past) and I can forward the e-mail to him to remind him to follow up on things. I also enlist the help of his wife to remind him of things so that it isn't always me hassling him.

Yes, all this is stressful and tiring and I'm not always good at tiptoeing around his ego on it (he doesn't believe there are any issues with his memory). But I try.

Also, just for the record, you aren't going to get a "how to deal with old people" primer here, OP, because, believe it or not, old people are just as diverse as any other group. "How to deal with black people" would be racist because it denies people's individuality and treats all black people as carbon copies of one another; "how to deal with old people" would be ageist for the same reason.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 12:56 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Atul Gawande's book, The Checklist Manifesto may offer some tips. Here's a review:

New York Times’ Freakonomics Blog review:

If there is one topic that I have no natural affinity for, it is checklists. I don’t use checklists. I’m not interested in checklists.

Yet, against all odds, I read Atul Gawande’s new book about checklists, The Checklist Manifesto in one sitting yesterday, which is an amazing tribute to the book that Gawande has crafted. Not only is the book loaded with fascinating stories, but it honestly changed the way I think about the world. It is the best book I’ve read in ages.

The book’s main point is simple: no matter how expert you may be, well-designed check lists can improve outcomes (even for Gawande’s own surgical team). The best-known use of checklists is by airplane pilots. Among the many interesting stories in the book is how this dedication to checklists arose among pilots.

Even more interesting are the stories about Walmart’s response to Hurricane Katrina, and the real reason why David Lee Roth used to demand that there be a bowl of M&M’s with all the brown ones removed in his dressing room backstage.

– Steven Levitt
posted by at at 1:21 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I kind of wish you'd chosen to go with an anonymous question, in the hopes that you would have been clearer about the actual problem, rather than the backtrack, confusing apologies, and what-if statements.

Whatever the problem is, write it down and keep editing til it's really simple. You've definitely worked something up into more importance than it should have, that is obscuring more direct approaches to the problem. I'm not sure I understand why you made so many references to being worried about being ageist, and making analogies about families, and family businesses, when this apparently isn't a family business. Did something along those lines happen in the past?

The bit where it gets weird is, you're not dealing with all old people, you're dealing with your specific boss who is old. If you weren't so paranoid about being ageist, you would have talked about him in the specific sense, not than this general sense. Ie not, how can I get along with all white/black people, but "How can I get on with my 40+ year african-american boss and co-workers, who have never had a white guy in his office, so that I can fit in with the culture a bit better?
*Cite objective examples of feeling uncomfortable"

It *sounds* like your question was actually:
"How can I work more effectively with my boss?
I'm in a non-profit, and where my 80 year old boss has been working for decades (he is not suffering from dementia). I've been having problems with some of his decisions and actions. How can I, as an employee, help him and help this not negatively affect the workplace?
Issues we've experienced:
* Decision making - He is slow to make decisions, and uncomfortable about pulling the trigger, on decisions he knows needs to be made. *example*
* He is accustomed to signing off projects without any checks. Probably because he has been less mobile for so long, he doesn't think to get someone else to check things. Eg money for a neighbourhood that no longer exists.
* Technology - He has no grip on modern technology, which affects us in x,y, z ways
* Slipping - He is having memory lapses which affect work.
* Finally, if we can't address these issies, and I feel bad for saying this, I don't think he's the best person to be doing the job anymore. How do I deal with this in a non-profit?
"

Etc. Thing is, other people will have similar situations - the Boss who was bad at all that in his *30s*. The Boss who came back after getting cancer, but isn't coping with the situation any more.
More specific, less general, and if you're worried about being revealed as writing it, just change some of the details (Female, 83, don't mention non-profit, it wasn't a neighbourhood but foundation etc) and post it as Anonymous, that's what it's for.
posted by Elysum at 10:08 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Although it may not be easy to think about, in my admittedly limited experience, the decline at the very end of life is its own phenomenon and deserves its own consideration. Of course it is different in every case, but the one common feature is that the process ends in the most common feature of all. Some things can be compared to the same phenomenon in a younger person--say limited mobility or forgetfulness--but the total complex is almost always reserved for, well, people who are really old.

Two of the three bosses I mention unfortunately died just a few months after I stopped working for them. Yes, obviously, 40-year-olds can die too, but being at really, truly the end, having some inkling of its approach, and working all the while, has its own challenges.

When I'm that age, and probably working, too, I'll be damned if anyone tells my direct reports, "Oh, just treat her like a dense and spacey 35-year-old." An exceptionally bright and effective professional who built company X from nothing, and is now plagued by all sorts of indignities, deserves a different approach than a bad boss in the flower of middle age.

I worked at an office with a very large number of Dominicans. It was almost traditional that new hires, of whatever background, got loaned a copy of In the Time of the Butterflies. Better understanding the territory and all that. Doing the reading, or trying to, is not the same as treating all Dominicans as a monolith.

I thank everyone for their suggestions!
posted by skbw at 11:20 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


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