Sunday, May 27, 2007

A final resting place

It’s warm and sunny here on the east coast, a big change from the cool winter Arctic breezes of Santa Cruz. It’s nice to experience at least a week of summer, and I’m glad that the Memorial Day vacationers have good weather to enjoy.

We drove directly from the airport down to Delaware, to visit some relatives. The trees are green and vibrant and leafy. It made me want to get out into nature. But I’ll have to save that for next weekend.

This weekend we went to visit relatives at an assisted living facility, basically a nursing home. It’s a good facility, with kind, attentive staff (many foreign born), nice facilities, activities, and decent food. But two very important things were missing – autonomy and dignity.

While in many cases it’s for their own safety, residents are treated like children, or zoo animals, with rules about what they can and can not have, what they are allowed to do and when. For some, it’s necessary. But for others, especially those who are independent and have lived a vibrant life, it can only feel suffocating and demeaning.

My own grandparents lived in such a facility and they were equally unhappy. It was just bearable as long as they were both alive. But once my grandfather passed away, my grandmother found it miserable. Worst of all, for her, was the high-school like atmosphere, where she wasn’t allowed to sit at the same table with “the cool ladies,” and the lack of people who shared her interests.

While the residents never mention it, I think the worst aspect of all must be being surrounded by aging, suffering, and dying. Of watching your friends and neighbors die off around you, a constant reminder of what’s to come. No matter how bad off I am, I’d rather live with a family, with people of various ages, so that I could at least partake in or watch their lives, to have something to focus on besides death.

Another challenge is how one can continue to feel meaningful, a useful part of society, in such a place. As part of a family, an elderly person can watch young children, can bake a pie, can tell a story, can fix something that’s broken – little things that contribute to the household and make them feel like they have relevance. Without relevance, it seems hard to find the self-esteem and motivation to go on. In this facility, the best one can do is to become part of a committee – such as the garden committee. It allows one to achieve something and to have a goal.

“But we have too many helpers here,” said Robert, a former active gardener, and a former member of the committee. “I’d like to be able to do something myself.”

I don’t spend too much time in such facilities. But I’ve yet to meet someone who is really happy to be living there. It makes me sad that our culture is set up with a focus only on the nuclear family, that the ties don’t bind across generations like they do in other countries. It makes me sad that the elderly are treated as something to take care of, rather than respected and included in familial life. It makes me sad that many people don’t have the funds to live in such a nice facility, or to have the regular home care they might need to live with their families. It makes me sad that people who are lucky enough to have lived long lives, spend their final years in sadness and loneliness.

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