Senior Moments

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:34

I spent three days of last week in nursing homes. It was interesting. I’ve had some issues with nursing homes since my grandmother was in one back in my late teens. Come to think of it, my issues probably started with youth group trips to nursing homes when I was in high school. It was sad back then…. but it seemed flat-out wrong when my grandmother was one of the patients.

I am not sure whether my memories are correct. I realize that emotion sometimes colors our perceptions and memories…and there was definitely deep emotion for my grandmother. I always thought she was practically perfect and deeply wanted her to live an engaged and happy life. With us. My view is that “they” (the nursing home folk) wrote her off and let her give up on life. Yes, I blamed them. Every time I went to visit, she was lying in bed. Sometimes a TV on, often not. Usually if it was on not on a program I thought she would want to watch. There were no remotes then to change the channel. I didn’t see much engagement and patient to staff ratios were very low. I hated it there. I was told she didn’t understand what I was saying to her, but I never believed this. I personally believe she heard and understood much of what was going on and what I said to her. It gnaws at me that I think she just was physically and emotionally worn out and gave up on life. Was it the physical problems or depression or both? I don’t know. That question still comes to mind when I see others that I care about seem to go through the same thing.

But last week, as I sat in conference rooms with the doors open and looked out into life in these nursing homes, homes very much like the ones I saw my grandmother in, I saw some hope. They were all a little different, but some good things were happening. One was a bit chaotic. Patients were everywhere. They were hanging out in all sorts of places. It actually took me aback a bit. Messed with my sense of order. But as I watched throughout the day I saw people who may have major health issues, but there was a sense of self-determination. I think losing the ability to make decisions as I age is one of my biggest fears, so when I realized that wasn’t happening there, it made me feel good. Even though it didn’t always make me comfortable! The chaos was a controlled chaos, with a purpose.

In a conference room in another nursing facility, I was on a hall with patient rooms. Patients with issues. I could see the lady across the hall who just slept most of the day. There was another man who kept yelling “Help me.” Evidently all day, every day. (He was fine!) Still another lady had been fighting going to have some medical tests done, and burst into tears when she found out she had hurt one of the CNAs that was helping her. She howled as they took her down the hall. In the midst of all of this, however, what stood out to me was the kindness and the patience by all the staff, especially when they didn’t know I was looking or paying attention. They would talk soothingly to them, yet not condescendingly. They laughed and joked and helped each other and seemed to enjoy being there. They seemed to soften the idiosyncrasies and the unexplained emotions of the patients and steady them. Many told me they enjoyed their jobs. One lady I talked to worked nights in the laundry there. She said she liked it because her former job was working with people all day, but this job gave her time to pray for all of the people who lived there as she did the laundry. (Note to self: Pray more for those I encounter at work.) We were talking to another staffer about the many patients who never had visitors and she said “We’re their family.” Family that visits often!

I went from working in these nursing homes, to visit with one of my college roommates. She had just lost her mom in December, and has since moved her dad in with them. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and the difference was shattering. He had lived on his own in a little town in NC before they moved him down to Florida with them, and seemed to function fine. He hid a lot. His weight had dropped drastically. His hearing was greatly diminished. He was driving himself around. He shouldn’t have been. He needed help, but could hide the fact when his kids were in town to visit. (How many seniors are doing this around your community?) Compared to his wife, whose health had failed to the point that she was in assisted living, he seemed OK. 

But once his daughter convinced him to move down to down with her and her husband, she found that the situation was far worse than she knew. In fact, it is a 24-hour non-stop job to care for him. Harder than raising a child (something she had never wanted to do) because not only is there the lack of predictability, but there is the weirdness of having to parent your parent. An unnatural thing, or at least unnatural for those of us who had adept parents. Where do you draw lines and forbid certain behaviors and when do you give them choice? Such hard questions, and even when the answers are clear, it does not make delivering those answers easy. There is the lack of dignity…when you can’t do things for yourself, how demeaning is it to have to have your child have to help you take care of those needs? I can’t imagine the inner turmoil and even the shame they feel. Unmerited shame, but we feel what we feel. 
My friend has to sleep with her ears open, because her dad wanders and gets disoriented. She has to watch his every move and anticipate the possibilities. Some days his mind is alert, other times he is irrational and misunderstands everything. There is one frustrating battle after another, that are fought again and again because sometimes he forgets what has been decided and the reasons why. My friend’s husband has to deal with the impact, too….a life interrupted by a man who he has never lived in the same town with before, let alone the same house. Even believing it is your responsibility to care for your parents and your spouse’s parents, the realities of the cost of it all can stagger you.
I felt perhaps my friend has taken on too much….it was exhausting watching her for the short time I was there. But only she knows what is right for her family. If a change is needed, she will have to make that difficult decision. I am proud of her and her husband for taking this on and in awe of it all, as I am of my other friends who have taken on the fulltime responsibility of caring for their parents. I’m proud of others who have had to make the decisions to put their parents in assisted care facilities. Still others are in the midst of trying to make the right decisions for their families. It is sweet to see their fierce compassion as they parent their parents. 
I am grateful that the minds and bodies of my parents are strong and that they are still capable of living unassisted. They are able to make the decisions to transition to the next stage of life themself. I am also grateful to have four engaged siblings who live close by, who will share in any care and decisions that need to be made for our parents down the line. We work well together, support each other, love our parents, are committed to our family, and I know each will do their part. From what I see, it is a tough burden even to share the load, but almost impossible to bare alone or with minimal assistance. (If you’re in that situation, do whatever you have to to find resources and people to support. Sometimes we don’t have, because we don’t ask.)

The number of seniors is exploding in our country. As we Baby Boomers age, we are expected to be much healthier than other generations, but we’re living longer than the generations before us. At some point our health will probably fail. Plus there are so darn many of us. Who is going to look after this next generation and at what cost? Are we raising adults who can not only look after themselves and their families, but assume the responsibility of caring for others? It’s going to be necessary. I think we’ve got some teaching to do. We need to teach the younger generations to love and respect their elders. We need to teach them to not fear those who are growing old, those whose health or mind is failing. We need to teach them not to forget that beneath the bodies that may be breaking down, is often a very full mind, with great stories and history to share. We need to teach them the importance of personal dignity and make them thoughtful as they attempt to preserve that in a person’s life. We need to make sure the upcoming generations abound in kindness and patience. I think they will need to possess more than we have ourselves. We need to change our views of healthcare and caring for the elderly. Should eldercare be a cut-rate service or should it be something our country invests in? I hope we begin now to see that as something that our country holds as important. Yes, I am paying more attention to elder issues these days and need to vote accordingly. The economy being what it has been, many have not saved for retirement or have had to access those funds they had saved for normal living expenses. There are going to be many needs, and we need to make sure there are funds to meet those needs.

I’m at the age where I have to make some plans for my golden years….and I do expect them to be golden years. No….actually make that platinum years. I think those days should be most precious, too. The idea of living in a senior community doesn’t scare me, as some of my friends have said it scares them. I look forward to it. I always loved dorm life when I was in college, so I expect assisted living to be about the same (well, except you have to attend doctor’s appointments instead of class.) I love that I see more facilities today acknowledge the dignity and autonomy of their patients. I love when I see that they encourage activity and interaction. I love that they don’t all smell like pee and icky ointments like they used to. I love that they aren’t our grandparents’ nursing homes. I hope they evolve even more before I need them, and they are lovely places, with compassionate caretakers, and instead of tears and pain, they are filled with life and laughter. I hope the care is affordable. I hope home care alternatives improve and that they are a viable option for many. I hope the field of eldercare is one that draws the best, brightest and most compassionate, not the people who can’t do anything else.

Health issues can, and probably will, happen as we age. Depression seems to accompany. I want to actively fight both…and I want us to encourage that in each other. Some of that preparation comes with how we practice life now. Our days, every day, is a gift. Every day has a purpose. In the midst of pain, or sickness, or hope, or joy, we find life.  And when it gets down to it, we can’t plan for all possibilities. We will deal with most of it as it gets here. Hopefully there will be good resources around to help us. But those resources need to be built now. While our minds are still nimble, while we are seeing our friends and families deal with these issues, we need to note the problems and find solutions. Solutions that will be there for us as we need them.

Sometimes the idea of surviving the aging process, of dealing with the aging process in those we love, seems impossible. But as we look back over our life so far, look how much we have gotten through that we would have said we could never survive. God has a way of being sufficient….and providing exactly what we need when we need it. It may not always be pretty, but it will be enough. We need to preserve that in our hearts and minds now, because it is easy to forget when things are bad. They say aging is not for sissies. That’s OK….we’re storing up the strength to fight those battles. We will deal with all we need to deal with and will flourish, even if in the process we have to scale our expectations down or lose a bit of dignity. Thankfully some of us were never that dignified to begin with, and we’ll have to be the teachers. Or maybe those with dignity will teach us to do it all a new way. Wouldn’t that be something….the years we finally became the dignified generation?!

1 Comment

  1. I so appreciate your insight. Helping seniors today is better than what it was even 15 years ago. I feel the change is due to people like you and me who have pushed any problems out in the open for them to be addressed. For example, the number one injury is falls for seniors. Falls can happen everywhere and it will. As children our expectations can be really high and I want my child to have high expectations but in our healthcare system it is tough for our expectations to agree with what is acceptable. I just went round and round with a large Charlotte hospital for giving a patient “percaset” and I am sure I misspelled that, and they sent her home, my mother, for me to get her out of the car and into our home and she could walk when we left the hospital. I had to call 911. After a written complaint, it was still determined that what she had been given was appropriate because they had been giving it to her in the hospital without any problem. ???? Needless to say I did not get the prescription filled. Family members so need to be involved in the care of their loved one. Do not rely just on a hopsital or facility to provide care. Question all medicines, why or why not, drug interactions, etc. Did you know that Potassium and Water Pills are prescribed together and if one is dropped the other should be almost all the time? Another senior had to postpone a surgery due to the water pill being stopped but the staff did not stop the potassium. None of us should be medical professionals unless we have gone to school for that but we should dig into what is happening with our loved ones care at all levels.

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