Everyone has plans for the future. The quest for: love, career, education, a home, kids, cars, vacations, etc. What about a plan for dying? It sounds morbid, but we are all getting older and wrinkly-er by the nanosecond. Suddenly we plop down in bed and a microsecond later, we’re dead. That’s the plan in our mind, but is it really that simple? We all want to die in our sleep, in our own bed, stoically, with loved ones by our side. Can you imagine any other way? My own grandfather, very much loved by his family, died alone at night in a hospital bed. We’d all seen his illness coming on for years, five or so from the time the first symptoms showed up, but the end came really quickly and he spent his last month in the hospital. Sadly, assisted living, elderly care, and death are topics we too often push aside. Our family did. We never discussed the issue openly save some updates or unpleasant stories about what he recently done. Even though we all mourned for him on the inside, we just couldn’t imagine him being anything other than the self-made fireball of a man we all new and loved. But the truth of the matter is, everyone will get old and most certainly die someday, and I believe everyone should be able to die with dignity and in peace.
My wife works at a long-term care facility (a newer, more pleasant term for an old-folks home) and regularly attends the death of a resident. Usually it’s her and another nurse and often no family show up before, during, or after this person’s life has passed. Can you imagine right now the faces of the paid staff that will attend your death? Well, of course I’d hope not. How much should they make to be the sole witnesses to your death? “Millions”, you’d say, “but that won’t be necessary, my family will attend.” Then I ask you, do you think any of the souls that my wife has helped usher on thought they would die with her? Do you think as a child or young adult they imagined death as being a hospital bed in a numbered room with paid staff at their side? I think the obvious answer is no.
The night my grandfather died he was very sick. He’d developed a chest-cold and pneumonia had set in. He was conscious, but barely. My mom was with him and he would hold on to her hand until he’d fall asleep, his heartbeat slow but steady, his chest heaving. She left him sleeping around eleven PM and by midnight he was gone. Could it be possible he was waiting to be alone to die? In history, many death rituals involved the elderly leaving the family unit to die alone. Is the idea of being present as a loved one passes a selfish desire of those who will live on? I’m beginning understand how some people might prefer to pass away quietly, by themselves.
For certain, my grandfather would never fault any of us for his fate. He was a loving, forgiving man and would never have accepted any guilt or regret on the part of any of us. He was the type of person who enjoyed being alone. When I was about ten, he lived in his RV for months, outside my mom’s place, while he added two bedrooms, a laundry-room, and two bathrooms to our too-small house. He would welcome my visits and take me out to breakfast any morning I was up by five AM, but I don’t remember him spending much time inside. After breakfast I’d have to go to school and he’d continue building our house, alone, happy as can be.
All too often though, people through their own decisions or through no fault of their own, end up without anyone at the end of their life and in the care of the state or charitable organization. While this is a far cry from the “almshouse” of olden days, (and people like my wife devote their lives to helping create the best environment possible) many residents still feel isolated and lonely. Remember they are also people and they have needs, desires and emotions just the same as any of us. They long for conversation and to be entertained. They want to be comfortable and be loved. They want to feel their life meant something and that they will be remembered. They often just want a hug.
Could it possibly be the very institutions that take care of the elderly are the reason so many are forgotten? If you can drop grandpa off and know he’ll be cared for, is it then easier to not think about his death or the quality of the end of his life? Obviously I’m not advocating for abolishing homes for the elderly. My grandfather would have died weeks earlier if he hadn’t received the care he needed. But with the population over 65 set to double in twenty years, I believe all Americans need to confront the issue of caring for the elderly right away. We need to confront this issue on a daily basis and start by acting locally. Many of us have parents that someday might need living-assistance. Talking with them in advance to hear their desires and to make a plan will help to strengthen bonds and give you and your parent a chance to express concerns before they become a reality. Remember, many diseases like Alzheimer’s can erode a person’s mind leaving the caregiver guessing if a plan is not in place before the onset of sickness. I think caring for a parent long-term, at home, is the most fundamental way someone can change this situation. Another way to get involved locally is through a charity like Meal-On-Wheels which helps seniors stay living at home by bringing them food they might have trouble preparing themselves. And, since there will always be some form of group assisted-living, everyone should seek out and opportunity to learn from seniors and make a difference by volunteering at a local group assisted-living facility.
The real way to make a home for elderly is to show them the love we all want, even when that means staring death in the face. This is not a job we should get paid for. This isn’t volunteering. Caring for the elderly, along with nurturing children, is the essence of living life completely and respecting all the life has to offer.