Miss Conduct

The human condition

Broaching the subject of an elderly person's incontinence, plus a hair-raising problem.

By Robin Abrahams
June 19, 2011

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In the congregation where I worship, there is an elderly person who sometimes smells strongly of urine. I noticed this recently, and it seems to be getting worse – so bad that a friend apologized for not sitting by us, explaining that she couldn’t stand the smell. I know that one’s sense of smell can diminish with age, and I’m almost sure that the congregant doesn’t know. I don’t know the person well enough to say anything directly, but I’m worried and wonder what, if anything, I ought to do.

M.S. / Jamaica Plain

Speak to one of the clergy, whomever you feel most comfortable with, about your fellow congregant’s problem. Don’t be embarrassed to do so; this isn’t idle gossip, and your obvious concern will come across. A rabbi, priest, or minister will know how to broach the topic with the congregant in a sensitive fashion and make sure that he or she is getting whatever medical and home help is needed. This is part of what religious communities do: We look out for one another. We mind one another’s business. We butt in. When we ask, “How are you?” we expect an answer.

In the Jewish tradition, the Asher Yatzar blessing thanks God for creating the body with its many “openings and closings” and notes our physical fragility. This prayer is said after going to the bathroom. It’s our way of recognizing that the highest achievements we are capable of – love, art, science, prayer, music – are still dependent on our gross, leaking bodies, and of giving thanks for those bodies. And when they betray us, as they inevitably will, our community holds us up instead.

So, go talk to your minister, or rabbi, or priest, or whomever. Keep sitting where you’re sitting. And scavenge, spiritually, for whatever meaning you can find in the awkward moments of life. There certainly are enough of them; I can only hope we’re supposed to learn something from them.

My maternal aunt and 90-year-old grandmother are obsessed with my waist-length hair. I am 50, and since I was a child, they have sneaked up behind me and pulled it, plucked strands out, or tried to cut it off (once poking me in the neck with a sharp knife). My father died recently, and after his funeral, my aunt came up and pulled my hair so hard I nearly fell over. My mother does not support me, and my sister suggested I cut my hair to make them leave me alone. Is there some way to make a person understand what she has been doing for decades is rude?

J.D. / Boston

What they have been doing for decades is assault and battery, and if it happened while you were younger than 18, child abuse. Oh, and it’s also rude. Rude in the extreme.

I cannot fathom your aunt’s and grandmother’s bizarre behavior, nor your mother’s and sister’s nonchalant attitudes. Do they feel you are somehow provoking your aunt and grandmother by having long hair? Whatever you do, don’t follow your sister’s awful advice – cut your hair under these circumstances and you’ll feel as though you’ve mutilated yourself.

Would wearing your hair coiled up end the attacks? If you’ve already tried that – or if you don’t want to give in even to that degree – then you’re well within your rights not to have anything to do with your mother’s family. Respect for elders and maintaining peace doesn’t mean submitting to physical abuse. And the hair assaults are creating an increasingly unsafe situation for everyone. Given the ages of the culprits, it’s only a matter of time until one of them sneaks up and gives you such a start that you step back, or grab for something to keep your balance, and she falls and breaks a hip.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.


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