By Kirsten Irgens-Moller, Regional Coordinator
Walking through a nursing home the other day with an older Ombudsman volunteer, we wandered into the social room where the TV was blaring. Bingo was being set up for the residents to play. As we rode the elevator down, I looked at him and asked if he was looking forward to having time to play bingo. Neither of us was. I realized that part of the dread of getting old for me and my friends is the idea that we will be warehoused somewhere with inane entertainment, too much TV and feeling useless.
One of the saddest interactions with residents of Assisted Living facilities is learning that a resident can’t understand why they are still living when no one needs them anymore. “I pray to God every night that I will die tonight – there’s just nothing else left for me”.
Why do we think of old age as a loss? According to William Thomas, who wrote the book, What Are Old People For: How Elders Will Save the World our culture looks at aging though a model of decline. From a peak in physical and mental agility and acuity in our 20s, there is an inevitable loss of self.
“…the decades gradually reduce the old to shadows of their former selves. At best, this new silhouette can be charming- a twinkling eye or kindly smile taking the place of youth’s vital glow. More often, though old people are exposed to a bigoted ageism that is openly expressed and widely accepted. They are herded into complexes and facilities that are cut off from the rest of the community—and are expected to pay for the privilege. “(Thomas 2007)
All elders still have much to offer society, to the next generation – songs, stories, wisdom but they are rarely asked to donate their services to something meaningful. The steady decline of bodily functions demands a new patience and fortitude and the increase in forgetfulness demands flexibility and creativity to, not only compensate but to create something richer and more complex.
How can I be useful? The scientific research of Laura Carstensen, of the Stanford University Center on Longevity, found that older people were:
b) had greater emotional complexity
c) were more able to experience both negative and positive emotions (poignancy)
So, though physical abilities may decline, emotional abilities may be increasing. In turbulent social time these emotional skills, the flexibility, the patience and the anchoring in history and possibility are a real assets (Thomas 2007).
How can we take advantage of this richness?
Visit, talk, create a space to integrate the needs of different generations in a dynamic and safe living environment – elder’s reading to pre-school kids, appreciating art and music with school age children and learning about computers and technology from teenagers, all the while sharing history, perspective and humor. Sharing oral histories and lived experiences with adults. Young children love to hear stories, be teased, learn new songs, make cookies and need to hear and embody history for it to become meaningful. They have a natural exuberance that is energizing and entertaining and an innocence and ability to learn and not judge that can delight the older people. Elders have the patience to deal with the constant questions, can tell good stories, can read stories, sing songs and many get a lot of pleasure out of watching children play. Children can awaken memories and can give meaning to repeated stories.
To be of use is the crux of what it means to be human and to be in relationship. Dignity and meaning is fundamental to all of us even when we become frail and forgetful. The Eden Alternative, Green House movement promoted by professionals such at Dr.William Thomas, (2007) and the latest dementia care ideas of Dr. Allen Power in with his work with “Dementia Beyond Disease” have ideas about how to re-integrate elders in our society that is badly in need of their perspective.
Ultimately, having purpose is a key component of their vision – love for the future and respect for the past, the two hand-in-hand as we seek to enhance well-being for all of us!
Fox, N, Norton, L , Angelli, J, Rashap A.W. Tellis-Nayak,V (2005) Well-being Beyond Quality of Life, The Eden Alternative Domains of Well-Being Revolutionizing the Experience of Home by Bringing Well-Being to Life” at www.eden.alt.org
Power, A.MD (2014) Dementia Beyond Disease; Enhancing Well-Being. Baltimore, MD: Health Professionals Press
Thomas, W. H. MD (2007) What Are Old People For; How Elders Will Save the World. Acton, MA: Vaderwyk & Burnham