Actually, I shouldn’t write ‘getting old’. What I should write is ‘being old’. Well, I’ve never thought of myself as old, but looking in the mirror reminds me every day that, yes indeed, I am getting on. But growing old is quite strange for me as it probably is for most of us. I think that as a species we have a built in system for blocking the impact of the passing of time on the way we live our lives. We are obviously aware of the passing of time, but we don’t think about it much if at all. Then one day we can’t help but notice that old age has crept up on us and bitten us hard on the rear end. The back hurts. The hairbrush pulls up tufts of grey hair where there is some left and the bladder, well, the bladder has its own agendum.
Of course the reality is that I have plenty of company in this getting old business. Born in 1947, I am one of the leaders of the post-war baby-boomer parade. The number of people in Canada over 65 years of age is higher than it’s ever been and it will trend higher yet until around 2040 when most of us boomers will be down for the count. My gawd, if I last that long I’ll be 93 years old which is my mother’s current age. My father lived to be 96 so I may just make it. I just hope I’m healthier than both my parents were as they passed into their 80s. My mother, born in 1924, has severe dementia and my father was deaf and almost completely immobilized by arthritis when he died in 2007. I don’t think he died a happy man. My mother cannot know what happiness is.
It’s a wonderful thing that my mother who lives in a care home in Coquitlam has a few of my many sisters who live nearby visit her most every day. She doesn’t recognize us anymore, hasn’t for a long time. Still, my sisters, the angels that they are, visit her and feed her lunch while ensuring that she is well cared for by the staff. I haven’t seen my mother for many months. No excuses, except that we live on Vancouver Island and she lives on the mainland. Still, truth be told, even when we go to Vancouver to visit my daughter and her family we never get around to visiting my mother (or anyone else in the family for that matter). I feel guilt about that, but not enough apparently to change my behaviour towards her (and them). In my defense, with 3 brothers and 10 living sisters, it would take weeks to get around to seeing them all. I do love every one of them and some of us are in communication via Facebook, but it’s not logistically possible to see them all.
Well, the above is just a way of getting around to the point of this blog post, which is a day long meeting/study session I attended yesterday of around 40 or so people who work for the provincial ministry of health, Island Health, some front line seniors’ support workers, various and sundry nursing types and people like me, members of the non-profit sector with an interest in seniors and their quality of life. The topic of the meeting was seniors’ isolation.
Mary Everson from the K’ómoks First Nation welcomed us to the K’ómoks territory. She’s a year older than I am but is now looking after a 6 year old and a 13 year old. I can’t imagine what that would be like although I do get a taste of it when the grandkids come to visit. Mary Everson is a very articulate spokesperson for her nation and for her age group too. She emphasized the importance of treating seniors with dignity, especially frail seniors who have travelled to the hospital from remote communities. She suggested that many seniors isolate themselves and don’t ask for support or assistance in any way. Not all seniors crave company or want help. Later in the meeting we would hear those seniors referred to as stoic seniors. She emphasized that being satisfied with life is most important, old or not.
Daryl Plecas, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health (Terry Lake) for seniors attended the meeting and emphasized in his remarks the importance of quality of life for seniors but also of their caretakers and families. Too often we forget that family members and caretakers are seniors themselves and their lives can be seriously affected by their need to look after their frail kin or clients.
The keynote speaker was Norah Keating from the University of Alberta who has a long resumé and who has written a book on the social isolation of seniors. Her talk was nuanced and careful. She noted the importance of thinking about seniors and their lives from both an individual and community perspective emphasizing the need for agencies and governments to think about seniors’s needs from their point of view. She categorized seniors as stoic, disengaged, marginalized and frail. The meeting attendees were not so much interested in me as a senior, but in the marginalized and frail seniors. They do make up a significant proportion of seniors although less than 10% of seniors live in care facilities. Many live in their own homes and like it that way. As they age they may lose their spouses, their driver’s licences and much of their mobility. Many as driven by pride and/or shame and don’t easily ask for help. Neighbours, family and friends are all important in keeping seniors from being too isolated.
Keating noted that the view that successful ageing means having great family support, being lucky, having money and living in a beautiful home just doesn’t fit the life experience of the vast majority of seniors. Agencies and governments have to recognize that a compromised quality of life affects individual seniors obviously but it also impoverishes us all.
We did not spend much time during the day discussing death, dying, hospice or palliative care. Many of those in attendance are well aware of these issues but the point of the meeting was not in end of life issues, but rather in the quality of life seniors have in coming to what we all hope will be a good death.
The group assembled struggled over challenges, solutions and ideas around dealing with seniors’ isolation. A report will be forthcoming. Enough for now.
6 thoughts on “Getting old, damn it!: A meeting to address the implications.”
I would like to share my mom’s experience with senior isolation. Prior to being compelled to enter the complex care unit, my mother did her utmost for 25 years to maintain her independence. She was wise in that she lived her life with preparedness from as far back as I can remember. She moved from the mainland to be close to me and my family when she approached age 60. She also did this, because the cost of living in Maple Ridge was getting too high for her. She did have a male companion at that time, who resided in a separate home, but with whom she traveled and shared every afternoon and evening. She liked to have her private time (as did he) in the mornings. Her friend died of prostate cancer in 1998 and she had mixed feelings about that – both relief and later loneliness. She allowed a relative to move in with her for company and assistance, as she was severely disabled with arthritis. This relative (one of her favourites) had additions and managed to wheedle money from mom. Mom was very shocked and hurt, yet she forgave the person. They went their separate ways, but this person returned and again caused her life a lot of stress mixed with benefits. I appeared on the scene (returning from another town) and there was a lot of conflict of this situation, mom being in denial and me seeing clearly. Mom finally realized that she had better sell her half of a duplex, after she had a few serious falls in and outside her home. She moved into the same apartment building as me and during that time, had severe chest pains, so I told her “call the ambulance”. They came and in emergency they felt she had not had a heart attack, because her blood work did not show I specific indicator. I felt that they were wrong, but had no authority so she returned home. Two weeks later, she had another severe angina episode, despite using her nitroglycerin, so she went by ambulance to the hospital again. This time, the blood work showed the component that indicates a myocardial infarction (fancy medical term for heart attack). She was admitted and cared for in hospital while I returned to my apartment and called my sister, who came out from Edmonton with a few of her children and grandchildren to see her and assess the situation. I told the nursing staff that I could no longer take the stress and worry of assisting mom in her home (I had been cooking dinners for her and been at her beck and call for a couple of years while working full-time). She was already near the top of the waiting list for admission to a care home, due to her arthritic disability. She could not walk more than a few timid steps and was completely reliant on a mobilized scooter for the previous 20 years.
Mom had deliberately isolated herself once she got into her apartment after the traumatic experiences she had recently been through. She had had enough of people, other than a few trusted relatives (mostly me). She was also developing some very odd coping mechanisms, such as saving paper grocery bags, hoarding chocolate bars in her drawers, and being generally organized in strange ways. All she was doing was watching TV all day long and struggling to make simple meals. This was not like mom and I noticed a severe decline during the two years she lived in the apartment building where I also resided.
Finally, one day, she received a phone call from VIHA stating that there was a place for her at Eagle View, which is attached to St. Joseph’s hospital. I told her we better get ready and go and see it. Mom had been looking at Casa Loma and had hoped to get in there, so when she saw that all Eagle View offered her was a bed, a desk of drawers, a small closet, and a dinner tray, she was shocked and not very happy. However, I told her she had better take it, because chances of getting in later when she really needed to might not come up. She reluctantly signed on and was admitted right away. She told family members that she wanted to go out into the garden and hope that a bolt of lightening would strike her and the metal in her leg and kill her now. She really did not want to be there.
However, mom settled in with a stack of novels that I brought for her from The Views library and enjoyed reading. She also enjoyed watching her favourite TV shows. Staff began to cajole her into going out into the main area to meet other residents and “socialize”. Mom strongly resisted for quite a while, but when I came to visit, she agreed to go out and have her tea in the main socializing area and discovered a few women that she enjoyed visiting. Over time, she started to look forward to sharing her meals with these people and she eventually got over her isolation.
Now, mom has declined more since she fell and broke her thigh last January. She gave up the fight for mobility and has adjusted to being mostly bedridden (although they do take her out to the main area occasionally, or sit her up in a special chair so she doesn’t get too many bed sores). Mom’s biggest dread was having to have her diaper changed, but when I saw her last, she has even adjusted to that. She has learned to let the nurses dote on her and fully care for her, but it took her about 6 years to get to that stage.
She is still able to read and can watch TV, although she is quite deaf now and it’s too late for her to get hearing aids, unless someone comes up with a few thousand dollars, and I’m not sure she could be tested for hearing in her bed. She has reluctantly accepted this disability too.
Mom reached 90 in October stating she never dreamed she would live that long. She is medicated for pain around the clock. When she first went in there, she would complain to me of her pain, and was inadequately medicated for pain. I told her over and over again to tell the nurses and ask to see her doctor for a stronger pain medication. Finally, she did that, and for the most part, is not in as much pain, although, at times, she gets stabbing pain that nothing can relieve. She asked about medical marijuana, but her new doctor (Dr. Musgrave retired) was very ambivalent about it. She is on some form of opiate, I believe. The loss of your family doctor is also a significant event in a seniors’ life, if they have had medical problems for years and a good relationship with their doctor.
Mom has always had a good sense of humour and joking with the nurses and other staff cause them to like her and keeps her in relatively good spirits. She also has strong Christian faith, although she sometimes wonders why God is letting her live this long.
So that is my mom’s story, if it can be of her to anyone.
I’ll reply soon, Marilyn. This is quite a piece you’ve put together here.
I liked your article and though I am very active with my art I wonder if I will always have the ability to do my art which has sustained me through many trials and tribulations.
You have a timeless quality about you, Robert. You’ll do your art work until you can’t do it anymore and that won’t be for some time yet. When you finally put your tools down, it will be your choice and it will be right!
Incidentally, my mother used to paint and draw, but gave that up quite a few years ago, due to her arthritis.
Too bad about that. Thankfully my arthritis isn’t that bad yet.
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