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Posted: March 09, 2005

Professional Caregiving

Airport Terminals: An Interminable Hike

As I look around, I am still amazed at how un-aging friendly many of the public use businesses, houses of worship and airports are. Airports are a mystery. Just last month my mother considered taking her cat with her to California, where she was visiting my sister for a few months. The difficulty of carrying the cat carrier all the way to the gate would be too much for her and her pride did not allow her to consider requesting a wheelchair assist. I understand the need for long runways for the planes, but the terminals that stretch miles make travel a wheelchair option even for the ambulatory! I would imagine that the job security of wheelchair dispatchers is excellent, with the growing number of seniors still wanting to travel.

Needing to request a wheelchair when you are mobile but just exhausted is demeaning and should be tried by all city planners, legislators and architects for a week!

I manage adult day centers and in my search for compatible sites for center expansion, I have climbed hundreds of steps in and out of inaccessible churches which, when designed years ago, had no foresight about the needs of persons with disabilities. Buildings that have been designed more recently and those which are mindful of a barrier-free house of worship are excellent partners for our care centers. But sadly, too many have not been remodeled for handicap accessibility.

Steps up, steps down, no ramps, sometimes no railings. This is a clear barrier to a house of worship that should sound alarms to the church planning committees every Sunday. Members who can no longer navigate safely within the building should bring it to the attention of the church leaders. Families who cannot attend because their loved one cannot gain access are torn between their desire to attend church and their concern about leaving a disabled parent home alone. They should also speak up.

Sometimes it?s not even steps, but bathrooms or pews that are too narrow to accommodate a wheelchair. Yes, I know about the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and the waiving of these requirements for private houses of worship, but that does not seem an appropriate decision as this causes those who may be in the greatest need for spiritual support to lose that opportunity for communal prayer and gathering.

Donna Shalala, past Secretary of Health and Human Services discussed this inaccessibility dilemma and suggested in the most recent American Society on Aging magazine that all ?legislators should be hobbled for one full week? to experience the difficulty in maneuvering in our cities. Are street lights timed for the slower walker? Do elevator doors close more slowly? Have bus steps been lowered?

Years ago I was responsible for staff training in my department of senior services. I enhanced a sensitivity activity that I had gone through myself. Eye glasses smeared with Vaseline, fingers taped together to mimic arthritis, marbles in shoes to mimic bone spurs, hour-long wheelchair maneuvers in the activity space in which we worked. All of these "conditions" were temporary, but even in the hour that they were employed, they gave the staff the sensation of discomfort and difficulty experienced by some of the clients at our facilities.

I bring this topic to your attention to encourage your examination of your facility, community, or city. Communicating with city planners, project developers, in an advocacy role is part of our professional responsibility. Changes like these don?t happen quickly. But if there is no call to action by the Aging Advocates, the day that our elders can easily maneuver in our communities, buildings and houses of worship, will not arrive soon enough.


Sylvia Nissenboim is a licensed clinical social worker and who has been working in the field of adult day services in the St. Louis area. She is the director of four adult care and enrichment centers for the American Red Cross and also operates a personal and professional coaching firm, LifeWork Transitions, specializing in caregiving concerns, adult day care management and other aging services, such as virtual coaching and family care giving support groups. She co-authored The Positive Interactions Program, is a national speaker, and has served as president of the Missouri Adult Day Care Association and as a member of the Missouri Governor's Advisory Council on Aging..

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