Grandma took my two hands in hers, leaned in close, looked me in the eyes and said, “Holly, I hope one day you get run over by a bus.”
A quick demise, she explained, would be far superior to languishing away in a rest home with new health problems and discomforts every day, not knowing what the future will bring other than it’s not likely to be any better than today.
Based on what I see when I visit, she has as good a rest home experience as it gets. She can get between the bed and wheelchair by herself, although it takes awhile. She can sit up straight unaided, although her shoulders more often than not slump in defeat. Her family members take excellent care of her, both materially and, more importantly, with their time and loving attentions.
There are the exceptions who prove the rule, people healthy and happy and cheerful as they live in institutions, and thank goodness for them. Then there are people in severely deteriorated conditions, or who haven’t been visited in weeks, months or years – or both bad off and not visited.
Little by little the world narrows, as one ability after another diminishes. Eyesight blurs and weakens, until even the entertainment and solace of reading or needlework are impossible. Hearing becomes more and more faint, building a thick, heavy blanket of isolation from the world that’s even only feet away.
There are myriad indignities that require various types of personal care, and the frustration of calling for help and not being heeded, or of being tended but with bad attitudes. There’s the trying to wait to ask for help after the shift change, when there’s a chance the pleasant aide will be on duty.
Meanwhile, I hear from aides who talk about being so overworked that they don’t have time to answer all the calls for help, let alone spend any quality time on pleasantries. I’ve heard from aides who quit their jobs because they couldn’t deal with the heartache and frustration of not being able to help as they felt they should.
Modern medicine keeps extending life spans, so that people are living longer and longer. Considering, though, what lies ahead in those years, is it worth it?
When Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) gave his talk Tuesday at New College Institute, he said that two major concerns of today’s society are childcare and eldercare. The workers in those fields are among the least paid, although they take care of our most precious treasures, our children and our parents and grandparents.
When he was a boy, he said, the ratio of workers to retired people was 16 to 1. Now it’s 3 to 1. That’s three people working to support each one older person.
Are we doing all we can to support the oldest people? You can break it down to essentially two levels of action: Visit elderly people who are isolated at home or living in facilities, and get involved in community and political initiatives to improve eldercare, whether through laws or funding.
Sure, it can feel awkward to visit someone in a rest home, not sure what to say, especially when the person you’re visiting spends the first half hour listing an litany of complaints. However, I have found that just sitting and listening to all of those complaints seems to do a great deal of good. I’ve learned nothing is required but my time and my respectful attention and hands to hold, and of course some home-cooked food every now and then.
The love we have for our fellow human beings should be enough incentive to take action.
If it’s not, just remember: If you are not lucky enough yourself one day to be run over by a bus, you very likely will be facing those same issues yourself.
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.