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