Getting old, damn it!: A meeting to address the implications.

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.